Innocents In The Stream [6.2]

This chapter contains mild sexual content.

“Semyon!”

Fatima’s voice sounded across the ship, in every hall and every room.

Everywhere it was heard, the crew was unprepared to respond to it.

Murati in particular had Karuniya’s legs wrapped around her waist, her lips giving deep, sucking kisses on her neck, when the alarm sounded. Murati had just barely thrust inside Karuniya when the pair of them were so suddenly startled by the flashing lights and the voice. Each of them wanted to jump a different direction and they fell off the bed together, hitting the cold ground. All around them the dark room was tinged red by the alert lights.

“What the hell?” Murati cried out. Karuniya barely clung to her, breathing heavily, still dazed with passion.

Code “Semyon” meant an all-hands on deck combat alert.

“Solceanos defend!” Murati shouted, uncharacteristically. “We’re under attack!”

Karuniya’s eyes drew wide open for the first time since they hit the bed.

Upon realizing the gravity of the situation Murati and Karuniya scrambled in opposite directions for clothes.

There was no time — they had to react immediately. Murati had hardly buttoned up the sleeveless TBT shirt and put on a pair of pants when she ran out of the room, sans jacket, hat, a tie, her shoes or even underwear. She was still struggling with the buttons as she went, but the urgency of the situation did not allow her to tarry any longer.

“Good luck!” Karuniya shouted after her.

“I love you!” Murati shouted back.

She ran as fast she could, cutting through the commotion in the halls to reach the ship’s Bridge.

There Murati found a bedraggled group of officers in varying stages of undress getting to their stations.

A group of young gas gunners with bleary expressions and half buttoned shirts ran past everyone down to the bottom of the bridge to access their weapons. Semyonova wandered in wearing a bathrobe over a bodysuit. There were several officers that were wearing camisoles or tanktops, workout pants, or simply underwear. Fatima Al-Suhar at the sonar station seemed to be the most aware of the group, along with a sick looking Alexandra and a jittery Fernanda: this trio was also perhaps the most fully dressed of the officer cadre, since they were assigned the night shift.

The Captain had just taken her seat, along with the Commissar beside her.

“We absolutely have to develop more readiness than this.” Aaliyah grumbled.

She was barefoot and had a long coat fully closed over whatever she was wearing under — if anything.

Ulyana was still fiddling with the buttons of her shirt even as she took her place in the Captain’s chair. With clear consternation in her face and in clear view of everyone, she did her buttons one by one over what was clearly a quite risque semi-translucent lace-trim black bra. She had the time to put on the uniform skirt, but no leggings.

“I guess we should all sleep with our clothes on from now.” Ulyana grumbled.

“Why do you sleep with all your clothes off?” Aaliyah whispered to her.

Murati clearly heard them, standing next to the command station, and cleared her throat audibly.

This noise sent Aaliyah’s tail up into the air. “Captain on bridge! Let’s get organized!”

For a bunch of half-asleep, half-naked people, the bridge crew responded to the alarm in a few minutes total. This was a showing that could have gone much worse. At least they were now alert. Fatima looked like the wait had been nailbiting for her. She was catching her breath when she was asked to report. With a sweep of her fingers, she pushed the various findings from her Sonar display over to the main screen for everyone to examine more closely.

“I sounded the alarm after identifying distant mechanical noises over the sonar as a fleet of Imperial navy vessels. In all the fleet has eight vessels: four cutters, two frigates mainly acting as Diver tenders, a destroyer covering the flagship, and an Irmingard class dreadnought. All of the models save for the flagship are older designs. From the knocking sounds of their propulsion they are also in relatively bad shape. This fleet has been approaching at combat speed.”

For a moment, everyone hearing Fatima’s report froze up. Alex briefly and audibly hyperventilated.

Fatima looked like she wanted to hide behind the divider to the gas gunner’s stations.

Everyone’s bleary, terrified attention was on her and she was withering under their gazes.

“Are you absolutely sure this fleet is headed toward us? It could be a coincidence, right?”

The Captain was the first to break the silence. Fatima shook her head, her ears drooping.

“All evidence points to them matching our bearing from a long distance.” Fatima said.

“Captain, should we proceed as though this is a combat situation?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana put her hands on the armrests of her chair and took a deep breath.

“Yes, I trust Fatima’s instincts completely. If she says we’re being chased, then we are. What I don’t understand is what would compel a whole fleet of Imperials to suddenly tail us? Including that Irmingard class from Serrano?”

Murati felt a sudden weight in her stomach. Listening silently and wracked with guilt.

Had her tarrying in Serrano led to this? Had she doomed the mission and all her crew?

“It can’t have been anything we did. None of our actions in Serrano could have raised suspicion.” Aaliyah said. “Perhaps order has collapsed; these ships may have formed a fleet to turn to banditry due to the absence of a strong central Imperial authority after the Emperor’s death.”

“That makes a really dark kind of sense. God damn it.” Ulyana said.

That settled the issue of culpability immediately.

Murati’s panic simmered down to a small guilt and shame over her own reaction.

The Captain and Commissar continued to deliberate for a few moments.

“Maybe we can bribe them to go away then. But maybe 3 million marks won’t be enough.”

“Right now the overarching question is: do we run, or confront them?” Aaliyah asked.

Ulyana grunted with consternation and turned her head to the weapons officers.

“Gunnery, report! Fernanda, how’s the main gun? What’s the ETA on weapons range?”

Fernanda shook her head.

“Our primary armament is woefully ill-positioned to forfend attack from an enemy pursuer. We will have at our disposal only three 76 mm guns on the aft mounts if our positional relationships remain unchanged.”

“Of course, the conning tower is in the way.” Ulyana lifted her hand over face. She was clearly having difficulties. “But if we turn to commit to a fight, we may not be able to turn again and run. Helmsman, if we max out the engines now, can we get away from that enemy fleet?” By this point everyone had taken to their stations properly, so Helmsman Kamarik was taking the wheel of the Brigand as he was addressed, and Zachikova and Semyonova were also on station.

“My girl can outrun the trash, but not that Irmingard, at least not for long.” Kamarik said. “Newer dreadnoughts have bigger reactors, more efficient jets, and better distribution of mass. We can sprint away for a moment, but she’ll catch us in the long run; unless we’ve made any progress on those extra thrusters. Maybe that’ll give us enough of an edge.”

“Zachikova?” Ulyana turned to the inexpressive electronic warfare officer for comment.

“I’ve got some test software ready in my station. We can certainly try it.” Zachikova replied.

“We still have to do something on our end to create an opening to escape. Otherwise they will just shoot us with the dreadnought’s main gun, and we’ll be sitting ducks, if we even survive the attack.” Aaliyah said.

“Unfortunately, I’m inclined to agree with you. We’ll have to assume we’re trapped for now.” Ulyana said. “At the moment, running is out of the question. Even if it becomes possible later, those guns remain a problem–”

While the Captain and Commissar deliberated, Murati stood in silence next to them, thinking about the tenor of their discussion as the Irmingard loomed distantly. Her mind was clouded. A mixture of fear, anxiety, and the frustrating need to act in the grip of both kept her cowed, but there were seeds of an idea, born of that frustration. Every part of her being was screaming at her that this was not right, and something was missing. She kept asking herself what the Captain and Commissar assumed about their situation. Why were they talking like this?

“Commissar, if they go all out, do you think the armor will hold?”

“If they hit us in the rear, we’ll sink, full stop. Not even worth thinking about further.”

They were wrong.

They were both wrong about the scenario!

Murati thrust her hand up into the air and closed her eyes.

In that instant, everyone who had been looking the Captain’s way turned their eyes on her.

She felt like the entire crew was staring at her at that moment.

Ulyana and Aaliyah noticed quite quickly.

“Got any ideas, First Officer?” Aaliyah asked.

“Yes, I believe I do. I think we’re looking at this the wrong way.”

Murati lowered her hand slowly. She was a bit embarrassed and couldn’t hide her troubled expression.

“You have the floor then.” Ulyana said. “Try to make it quick though.” She winked.

“Right.” Murati took in a breath and centered herself. She remembered her speeches to the peer councils, where she petitioned time and again for a ship. Those speeches that Karuniya admired so much. “At the moment, it is not possible that the Irmingard class sees us as a military vessel. The Brigand was classed by the Serrano tower as a cargo ship. Our main guns are hidden, and we have never moved at combat speed since we left Serrano. We have an advantage there; we don’t know the Irmingard’s intentions, but they on the other hand are unaware of our capabilities.”

In a battle, initiative was important, but initiative was enabled by information.

Maybe an enemy with perfect information could have taken the initiative against them.

Murati believed the Commissar and Captain to be overestimating the enemy’s information.

Or perhaps, they simply filled themselves with anxiety without thinking realistically.

“You’re right! That’s a sharp point.” Ulyana said. “They wouldn’t expect a Diver attack! Hell, they wouldn’t expect an attack of any kind right now. We could do some damage with that. Maybe enough to get away from them.”

“If we can surprise them, maybe.” Aaliyah said. “That said even if we catch them off-guard, we can’t withstand a direct hit from the Irmingard’s main gun to our rear. So trying to lure them into a trap might still be a moot point if we have no defenses against their counterattack. We could just be dooming our diver squadron to be captured for nothing.”

“I don’t think the Irmingard will shoot us.” Murati said. While her superior officers watched, she started to talk, uninterrupted, disgorging the contents of her mind. “Their objective just can’t be to destroy us. What does that profit them? It makes no sense! You said it to me yourself, Captain. In the Empire, it’s all about the money. We can’t know whether they’re bandits or not, but I think you’re right that they want something from us, that they stand to gain from this. Why randomly attack a cargo ship? Why sink it? It would cost them ammo, time, fuel rod erosion, parts wastage, especially with those old and janky ships. I think that Irmingard is calling the shots, and it rounded up this fleet to come after us. I believe they have an agenda that will prevent them from shooting. Violence at this scale is never random.”

Ulyana and Aaliyah stared at Murati, who for a moment thought she must’ve said something wrong to get that kind of reaction. They then looked at one another, deep in thought. A few seconds of deadly silence lasted from when Murati stopped talking, to the Captain standing up from her chair. She seemed to have hatched some kind of plan right then.

“Murati, I’m betting it all on you, so don’t let me down.”

She spoke so that only Murati and Aaliyah could hear, and she winked at the two of them.

Then she turned to the bridge and began to give off orders, swinging her arm in front of her with a flourish, a determined smile on her face and a renewed vigor in her voice. “Al-Suhar, I will need up to the minute updates on the position of the enemy fleet! Keep an eye on them! Helmsman Kamarik, retain this speed for now but match the Irmingard’s once it comes within a 1 km range. Semyonova, send out a line buoy to trail behind the ship and when the time comes, demand to speak with the Irmingard’s commanding officer on video. Geninov and De La Rosa, prepare the weapons but you will only shoot with my explicit orders. Zachikova, have your software ready to go as quickly as humanly possible. And Nakara, get your squadron ready to deploy immediately, I want you out of the hangar the instant I command it. Get out and there and give that flagship hell! We’ll escape once you’ve bought us an opening.”

For a split second the bridge officers were in awe of this sudden display of authority.

Never before had their Captain Korabiskaya spoken so powerfully and decisively to them.

With that same vigor that she showed them, the officers began to respond in kind.

Even Aaliyah seemed taken aback with the Captain’s swift turn and remained silent.

Letting her assume command, unassisted, the only voice heard: a Commissar’s respect.

“We’re not fighting to score a kill here! Let’s make like the pistol shrimp: punch and run!”

Captain Korabiskaya sat back in her chair, pushed herself up against the seat and sighed.

All around Murati, the bridge came to life again. Every officer turned their backs and their gazes fell deep into their stations, working on their computers. When they communicated, they spoke from their stations with clarity rather than turning to face the Captain again. There was no complaining. Having received clear instructions from the Captain, they set about their tasks. It struck Murati that this is what every other bridge she’d been in was like — these folks could all be professional when the situation demanded. All of them had great achievements on their records.

They could rise to the occasion, even if they were eccentrics personally.

There was a reason they were all selected to be on this ship.

Maybe, they could pull this off if as long as it was this crew — and led by this woman.

“Captain Korabiskaya, ma’am,”

Murati stood in attention at Ulyana’s side and saluted.

“My squad will be ready. Have Semyonova let us know when to deploy.”

“Godspeed, Murati. I’ll do everything I can from here to give you a good distraction.”

Ulyana smiled at her, and Aaliyah saluted back at her with a small smile as well.

The Captain’s face was bright with hope as always, but also steeled with determination.

At her side, the Commissar sat with her eyes deeply focused, a rock of stability.

They had developed a silent trust. Everyone in this room was developing this trust too.

Murati had never seen them like this, and she felt conviction rising again in herself.

That deep, clear, commanding voice, the radiance in her eyes, the grace of her movements. Ulyana Korabiskaya truly was a seasoned ship’s Captain. She was everything Murati aspired to be. The feeling Murati had in her chest when she witnessed her taking command is what she always wanted to instill in others. That ability to dispel helplessness and move these disparate people toward a single justice. Spreading her wings to protect them, while inspiring them to fight at her side. Ever since Murati saw this same thing when she was a child in the care of Yervik Deshnov.

There was no room to falter when she was commanded by such a gallant Captain.

In fact, she felt ashamed that she ever had doubt in Captain Korabiskaya.

The Captain had been right. Murati was still not ready. She had a lot of work to do.

It wasn’t enough to just know how to fight. She had to learn to lead people too.

Nevertheless, as she left the bridge, her determination to achieve that seat burned brighter.


Since being detected, the Irmingard class and its escorts trailed the Brigand through open ocean for what felt like an eternity before coming into range of a trailing line communications buoy that Captain Korabiskaya had ordered deployed from the aft utility launcher. With about a kilometer separating the enemy fleet from the Brigand, and closing, it became increasingly clear to the Captain that the enemy had no intention of shooting first.

She could breathe just a bit easier.

Murati had been right. Ulyana should have thought of the bigger picture.

Anticipating her video call with the enemy, Ulyana took a moment to complete dressing herself, donning the teal TBT uniform half-jacket, and tying her blond hair up into a ponytail, as well as quickly redoing at least her lipstick. She had enough time to make herself professionally presentable, if not comely, before the situation accelerated once more.

Communications Officer Semyonova had hailed the enemy fleet through the comm buoy.

Minutes later, the bubbly blond had a dire expression as she turned to the Captain.

“Captain, we’ve received a response. The Irmingard class is identifying itself as the Iron Lady, an Inquisition flagship under the command of one Grand Inquisitor Gertrude Lichtenberg. She has acquiesced to speaking to us, but is it really okay for us to link up with her?” She asked.

It took all of Ulyana’s inner strength not to respond too drastically to that information.

She wanted to scream. An Inquisition ship could mean they messed up somewhere.

“I can’t think of a single justifiable reason they would be tailing us.” Aaliyah said.

Ulyana let out a quiet breath, thanking God for the good timing of her Commissar.

Aaliyah was right. Looking back on everything that happened in Serrano, nothing should have caught the attention of the authorities to such a drastic degree. It was not possible that the dock workers could have ratted them out, because Union intelligence money was part of their bread and butter smuggling gigs, and the Empire would have had them all shot, not made a better deal. Murati’s stubbornness with the homeless people would have never provoked this kind of response. Ulyana could only reasonably assume that this was a personal action for this Inquisitor.

Why their cargo ship specifically?

It was berthed nearest, perhaps, so the Inquisitor saw it and saw it being loaded with some goods, like Marina’s crated up Diver. So perhaps it made a juicy target in that way. The Brigand, as a cruiser-size hauler, was among the biggest ones that would have been at the port of Serrano. Or perhaps they were simply unlucky, and the Inquisitor had just set out the same way and found a target to slake her corrupt appetite for civilian money.

There had to be an explanation for everything. Ulyana had to get in this woman’s head.

“Commissar, I’m going to do my best to keep them occupied for a bit.” Ulyana said.

Aaliyah understood. She took off her peaked cap, put it out of view, and stood away.

That way it would be only Ulyana and Lichtenberg talking, or so she hoped.

“Semyonova, open video communication. Zachikova, watch the network closely.”

Zachikova grinned. “Let them try anything. I’ll slap them so fast their heads will spin.”

Semyonova nodded her head solemnly. “I’m connecting us to the Iron Lady.”

Ulyana adjusted the arms on the sides of her chair to bring a monitor up in front of her face. This monitor and its attached camera would project her face and show that of her opponent. For a moment it showed nothing but diagnostics, until Semyonova swiped a video window from her station to Ulyana’s. That feed was murky at first, but when the connection went through, a woman appeared on the screen with a pristine silver wall behind her. There was a shield emblazoned on that wall that was visible in the feed, the surface of it bearing a symbol of a cross and dagger.

“Greetings, Captain. I am Gertrude Lichtenberg, a Grand Inquisitor of the Imbrian Empire. I take it that you are in command of the hauler registered in Serrano as ‘Private Company Asset TBT-009 Pandora’s Box’? Quite a grand name for a humble workhorse of a design if I may comment. So then, Pandora’s Box, who am I speaking to today?”

Though her face remained void of emotion, Ulyana kicked herself internally.

Why did she let Semyonova decide the ship’s name that they gave to the Serrano tower?

She should have known the flighty blond would pick something silly.

For a moment, Ulyana hesitated as to whether to give her name to the Inquisitor. Thinking about it briefly, however, she felt that Imperial intelligence wouldn’t have had information on individual soldiers. They were probably concerned with people more important than that. While Ulyana was known as a war hero to the Union Navy, she wasn’t a household name. There was no chance an Inquisition computer would identify her immediately.

“I’m Ulyana Korabiskaya.” She finally dared to say.

Gertrude Lichtenberg gave off a strong presence, even through the video. In Ulyana’s mind, it was not just the uniform either. Certainly, the cape, epaulettes and the tall hat helped; but it was the strong features of her face, like her sharp jawline, regal nose, piercing eyes, and olive skin that really gave her a degree of fierce handsomeness. She was the first Imperial officer Ulyana had talked to face to face. Her easy confidence and almost smiling demeanor directly traced to the incredible power she boasted. This woman commanded one of the most powerful ships on the planet.

“We’ve been tailing for a while, Captain Korabiskaya. You’ve clearly been aware of our presence but maintained speed all the same, and even matched us when we neared. You know we’re pursuing. While I appreciate being able to talk face to face, I would like to request that you slow down for an inspection. We could arrange to meet in the flesh.”

Ulyana gave a prearranged signal to the bridge crew, laying back on her seat.

Helmsman Kamarik began to slow down by miniscule amounts, fractions of a percent.

Semyonova, meanwhile, sent a text message down to the hangar. Ulyana took notice.

“We are slowing, Inquisitor. May I ask what your intentions are in this situation?”

“You say you’re slowing?”

“Indeed, I’ve already given the command.”

Lady Lichtenberg narrowed her eyes and grunted lightly.

“Don’t test me, Captain. I want you to actually slow your ship down, right now.”

“I’m afraid this old thing can’t just stop instantly without a turbine breaking.”

“That’s none of my concern. Slow down for detention and inspection this instant.”

No threats of shooting? Ulyana felt like any ordinary police would have drawn a weapon.

Especially an Inquisitor with the world’s biggest ship-mounted guns to potentially draw.

The Captain was starting to believe her counterpart truly didn’t have intention to shoot.

Ulyana continued. “Are we charged with any sort of wrongdoing? Are there routine cargo checks in place now? And here I thought Sverland would be a good place to do business in the current climate. Being frank, our reputation is at stake, so we can’t be delayed very long. In tough times like this, we need to prove our reliability.”

Something about what she said clearly struck a nerve with the Inquisitor.

Though she was not sure of which part, Ulyana could see she was getting under her skin.

Sounding as irritated as she looked, the Inquisitor responded, in an almost petulant voice.

“You’re quite mouthy for someone I’m a few minutes from detaining.”

“Aside from speed, tenacity and courage are what our customers expect from us.”

“Listen, mercenary, I’m neither fooled nor impressed with your little cover story. We all know what you mean by transport company. I have no idea what rotten deeds your crew have participated in, and I frankly don’t care. All I want is to inspect you, get your roster, and be on my way. If you’ve got nothing to hide from me in your cargo hold, then you’ve got nothing to fear. Slow down considerably, or we will be forced to slow you down by our own means.”

Mercenary? What did she mean by that? They were pretending to haul goods!

Was transport company really a euphemism in the Empire? And a euphemism for what?

Nevertheless, Ulyana was getting what she wanted. There was still no mention of the guns.

In any other situation, those guns would be all the leverage the Inquisitor would ever need.

Trusting in Murati’s assessment, she called Lichtenberg’s bluff and continued to push.

“Inquisitor, if you shoot us, it will jeopardize our valuable cargo, and nobody profits.”

At that moment, for the first time, Lichtenberg’s stone visage suddenly shattered.

Her eyes drew wide and for a moment, her breath seemed caught in her throat.

She was not quick to any issue any more threats. In fact, she was not speaking at all.

“I believe we can come to a suitable agreement.” Ulyana said, pushing her luck in the Inquisitor’s silence and the sudden moment of anxiety her opponent experienced. “We’re on a tight schedule, and our cargo is our life, but I’m able to part with a tidy sum of cash instead. Purses are probably getting a bit tight in the Inquisition right now, are they not? I’ll pay a nice fine so we can overlook all of this unpleasantness and go about our days.”

“You bastards; you fucking animals; you’ll desist at once. At once!”

That reaction was unexpected. Seeing the Inquisitor so filled with frustrated emotion.

Lady Lichtenberg suddenly started shouting. “Captain Korabiskaya there is no way for you to run from this. We will hunt you to the end of the Ocean. If you run from me I guarantee you that your life is over. My men will board your filthy little ship and slaughter every illiterate merc stupid enough to have taken your money to do this job. I’ll personally make you taste the floor of the coldest, darkest cell in the foulest corner of the Imbrium, where you’ll be interred in lightless stupor until your skin and hair fall off. Stop right now, or I will make you beg to be shot!”

Ulyana blinked with surprise. Never before had she been so verbally assaulted in her life.

However, the sheer brutality of that reaction belied the inexperience of its source.

Everything Murati suspected was confirmed.

Inquisitor Lichtenberg could not turn her ship’s mighty cannons on the Brigand.

Confident in herself, Ulyana mustered up a smile, despite the accelerated beating of her heart and the ringing of the Inquisitor’s furious voice still abusing her in her ears. And as the Captain’s pretty red lips crept up into that smile, the Inquisitor froze in mute fury once more, eyes slowly drawing farther as she failed to elicit her desired response.

“Inquisitor, kinky as it sounds, that’s just not my idea of a good time. Such handsomeness as you possess is wasted completely if you can’t read what your partner wants from you. I would not be surprised to find out you’ve been quite unlucky with love if this is how you flirt with a gorgeous older woman the first chance you get.”

Ulyana winked at her.

Lady Lichtenberg’s jaw visibly twitched in response.

Her lips started to mouth something, as if she were mumbling to herself.

Anyone else may have overlooked it.

For Ulyana, used to picking up girls in the loudest parties in the Union, it was clear.

You– You must– You must know about her. You must know who she is.

It was so strange and outlandish a thing that Ulyana second guessed herself if she saw it.

“Inquisitor, we’re detecting an approach!”

From outside the frame of the Inquisitor’s video feed, someone was getting her attention.

Somehow, despite everything stacked against her, Ulyana really had done her part.

“I’ll have to bid adieu, Inquisitor! Zachikova, deploy the acoustic jammer, now!”

“Wait! What! I’ll–!”

The Inquisitor’s furious gaze was cut off as Semyonova terminated her video feed.

Zachikova flipped an arming switch with a grin on her face. Fatima withdrew her earbuds.

On the main screen in front of everyone on the Bridge, the sonar picture of the enemy fleet, approaching past the kilometer range, suddenly blurred heavily as an absolutely hellish amount of multi-modal noise across a host of frequencies began to sound across their stretch of the Nectaris. One agarthic-powered munition fired from the utility launcher sailed between the fleets and began a massive attack on the acoustic equipment the ships and computers depended on. It was such a cacophony that the visual prediction grew muddy, the shapes of things deforming like clay as the source of the data the computers were using was completely distorted by the waveform pollution.

For a ship fighting underwater, this was akin to screaming at the top of your lungs to deafen an enemy.

Everyone for kilometers would have detected the noise.

However, as part of that gamble, their enemy would be completely blinded for a key instant.

It was all the cover that they could give their Divers as they approached the enemy.

In an age of advanced computing such as theirs, these diversions were short lived.

But every second counted in the informational space.

Once the jamming noise was ultimately attenuated out by the enemy’s electronic warfare officer less than a minute later, Zachikova shut down the munition on their end, and once again the main screen on the Brigand represented an accurate picture of what was happening around them. Six figures representing their Divers had been able to gain substantially on the enemy from the distraction, and the battle was about to be joined in earnest by all parties.

“Battle stations!” Ulyana cried out. “Get ready to support the Diver operations!”

Captain Korabiskaya led her bridge with the same crazed energy that led her to try to flirt with an Inquisitor. Everything they were doing was wholly improvisational, the enemy before them was qualitatively stronger in every way, and they had no way of knowing if they could even escape this engagement, much less throw off the Inquisition’s pursuit in the longer term. In truth, their mission could have been jeopardized forever at that exact moment, over before it began.

And yet, Ulyana’s heart was driven by this same insane hope that she had instilled in everyone else.

Murati Nakara had been right. Despite everything, they still had the smallest chance to succeed.

Now all she could do was to lead her precious crew and entrust Murati with the rest.

“Captain,”

As the battle was joined, and Ulyana sat back in her chair to breathe for just a moment before she had to start directing their fire and taking communications, Commissar Aaliyah resumed her seat beside her and gently whispered, in a way that would draw the Captain’s attention to her.

Across her lips, a fleeting little smile played that warmed the Captain’s heart.

“Unorthodox technique, but well played. You were excellent, Captain.” She said.

“At least I maintained emotional control. But the Inquisitor was a poor opponent for a woman who has sweet-talked her way into as many wild parties over the years, as I have.” Ulyana said nervously.

For once, Aaliyah’s ears perked up, and she laughed a little bit with the Captain.

For a brief second, the pair of them could take comfort, as if in the eye of a storm.

Despite everything against them, they created a small chance to win, and Ulyana could savor it.


Previous ~ Next

Innocents In The Stream [6.1]

After a short journey from western Sverland, the Irmingard class dreadnought Iron Lady made it to Serrano Station in the south and was cleared for a double berth in the lower docks. The absolutely massive craft required delicate and patient handling to enter its berth gently, without smashing into the confines of it from any retained momentum or striking any of the vast quantity of ships sailing around them. For what seemed like fifteen minutes the vessel inched its way parallel to the berth walls. With its skilled crew and experienced Captain, there was no danger.

Once it was secured and drained, the crew received a transmission from Station Security.

Such was the urgency of Serrano’s authorities that they requested to speak to Gertrude Lichtenberg as soon as possible on the matter for which they had called her and requested to bring their prisoner to her; and such was their indelicacy that they left her waiting for hours even after requesting she descend alone. And so a sullen young woman in uniform stood aimlessly in the docks, crossing her arms, tapping her feet, glaring furiously at the guardhouse in the distance. Sometimes she walked to and fro. Halfway through her vigil, food and water was sent down to her.

Nevertheless, she spent an insulting number of hours simply waiting, by herself.

Official business was usually beset with setbacks. Gertrude was not unused to waiting for a contact.

But she hated that she was given time to think of where she was and what she was doing.

Serrano was preceded by what felt like an interminable chaos after the fall of Vogelheim.

There was so much discord raging across the Empire that Gertrude’s Inquisition reeled in its attempts to get a hold of any of it. Several states made explicit declarations of both disregard for the central authority of the Empire, and willingness to take violent action against one another. The Inquisition was ultimately not a military authority, it did not have the power to go to war. It had impressive weapons, which were used to pursue and prosecute criminals in the Empire ranging from anarchists springing up on college campuses, scheming nobles with private security forces, and katarran bandits who snuck into the Empire armed to the teeth and pushing guns and drugs.

As a Grand Inquisitor, Gertrude made a careful statement that her loyalty to Imperial rule of law had not changed. She had hoped to remain neutral, and to do her best to continue to protect the common people from opportunists during the unfolding conflict, but the rival political factions immediately came to treat the Inquisition as part of Erich von Fueller’s camp. She was explicitly not allowed to operate in their territories by the new governments of Rhinea, Bosporus, and Skarsgaard, so after leaving the Imbrium to help quell banditry in the weakened southern Sverland, she found herself “stuck” in the Nectaris Ocean. Unless she took her chances through Rhinea, or snuck through the Khaybar Pass, she could no longer return home to the Palatinate to link up with the Prince and his forces.

Even in Sverland, she was friendless, as in the Emperor’s absence the national parliament, the Council of Lords, had joined the Royal Alliance. What could she do when the basis of the law she followed was also just heedlessly throwing itself into partisan war? Not that it mattered. Gertrude was merely filling her time to avoid thinking and feeling. When she told Prince Erich of what happened to Elena, he had no sympathy to show. She hated his cold, pragmatic reaction, and could not support him, not wholeheartedly. The Volkisch were animals and freaks, braying for violence. She wanted them all dead. And the rest? The so-called Royal Alliance, the “Vekan Empire,” the anarchists, all a farce.

Gertrude was moving, in mind and body, purely because stopping brought back the pain.

In reality, she felt lost. Her body was driven only by the tiniest, most demented of hopes.

Everything she held dear, everything she wanted to nurture and protect, was destroyed. Hunting bandits at least prevented innocent people from becoming prey. It was just something to do while she struggled with what she really wanted to do: whether a hopeless search or a bloody, screaming vengeance. Could Elena really be out there? And if not, could Gertrude avenge her?

Now, however, she was drawn back into the fulcrum of the Empire’s new age of strife. She had been called to Serrano to deal with a “sensitive prisoner” at the Station. As the only vestige of the central Imperial government left in the area, Gertrude accepted. It was her duty. And so her ordeal in Serrano stretched on, her lonely, aggravating ordeal. Waiting, alone and unstimulated.

She contemplated returning to the ship. Her mind was starting to wander her many wounds.

Then a lorry painted white and blue arrived just around the corner and deposited several official-looking men and a few uniformed guards. At the head of the group was the Serrano Defense Commissioner, Arberth Hoffman, who had contacted her when the Iron Lady berthed. As his entourage approached her Gertrude wanted to give them an earful. However, she was given pause by the figure in their escort, and the state in which they dragged her along.

She was a tall woman, taller than her captors, long-limbed and lithe. Her shining blond hair trailed behind her, tied into a voluminous ponytail. She rarely lifted her sorrowful, tear-stained blue eyes from the ground. Her perfectly proportioned figure was well dressed in a black naval uniform with long pants and a sleek, fitted coat decorated heavily with awards which the guards had not stripped from her. Crosses and roses and oak leaves all rendered in gold.

Her facial features were partially hidden behind a Loup muzzle, but she was not a Loup. Her hands and feet were also shackled, and the chains met with each other, and then attached to a shackle around her neck.

Gertrude recognized this woman immediately. Anyone in the military would have.

“Baron Sieglinde von Castille.” Gertrude muttered to herself.

Her shock would have been forgiven but nonetheless, she hid her feelings behind a mask.

An Inquisitor’s unreadable, taciturn expression to meet Sieglinde’s sad, frustrated eyes.

What did you do? Gertrude wondered silently. How had this war hero ended up here?

And more importantly: what did they want Gertrude to do to her?

Rather than waiting even more for these people to walk to her, Gertrude met them halfway.

She reached out a hand to the Commissioner and they shook. Everything was cordial despite Gertrude’s personal displeasure toward the group. The Commissioner was sweating and had a friendless look to his face that made him look much smaller and more pathetic than his pristine uniform would normally suggest.

“Inquisitor, apologies for the delay in meeting you.”

“I’m sure you’re quite busy, Commissioner. I’m curious why you have a member of the nobility under your custody, and in such a humiliating position. Frankly, it makes me quite upset.”

She pointed past the Commissioner at his entourage of guards and their captive.

“Milady, it was all we could do to pacify her, I’m afraid. You don’t know her strength, nor her resolve to escape from us. I’m afraid we have all had good reason to fear her these past days.”

Gertrude’s expression darkened. Her annoyance with this man was boiling over to hatred.

“I know her strength perfectly well, Commissioner. She’s a decorated and exemplary war hero and more importantly bears a peer title. It is disrespectful and dehumanizing to have her in such restraints. Maybe you’ve forgotten such things with the times. Before any further discussion, I demand that you release her from those horrible bonds and treat her with dignity.” She raised her voice such that Sieglinde might hear her. In the background, the men guarding her became startled, and Sieglinde’s eyes looked up from the ground for the first time since she had appeared.

For a moment, the Commissioner seemed to silently weigh his options, but the growing petulance in his expression belied his helplessness in this matter. Gertrude had all the power in this situation. Never mind that she had the power and access to military assets needed to potentially seize him by force for any grave offense he caused her; she could also just leave. He called her because he needed her, and therefore he needed to follow her terms so she would help him.

He turned to his subordinates and nodded his head in Sieglinde’s direction.

Two men behind her back with electric prods stepped back, while two other men undid the shackles on her hands and feet. They disconnected the chains which connected these shackles to her neck shackle, and undid her mask, but she would not allow them to remove the shackle around her neck completely. Or at least, she gave them a very stern look when they returned to her orbit to try to touch the nape of her neck. So this particular shackle simply remained as part of her look.

When the mask came off, it unveiled a youthful, strikingly beautiful face even for the brooding, petulant expression upon it. For someone who fought in the Colonial War, Sieglinde looked remarkably like she could be Gertrude’s age, and with only the barest hint of makeup. Her soft nose and sleek cheekbones gave her a royal appearance, and along with her blue eyes and golden hair, she was the ideal of Imbrian aesthetics. Moreso than the dark-haired, swarthy-skinned Gertrude — not that she was envious. Nobles worth their salt were simply unmatched in beauty.

Nowadays most nobles were not worth their salt.

“You are Baron Sieglinde von Castille, correct?”

Gertrude shouted past the Commissioner so the captive would hear.

“Unfortunately, yes.”

Sieglinde responded simply, in a deep and rich voice. She was rubbing her wrists each in turn where she shackles had been and stretching her arms. All of the guards gave her a wide berth as if they feared being slapped away by accident for being near her as she moved. It was quite a ridiculous scene. One woman surrounded by armed men who were all terrified of her every move.

“Then I humbly request you join us, Baron.” Gertrude said.

The Commissioner sighed heavily as Sieglinde stepped forward and stood at his side.

She glared at him sidelong before turning her full attention to Gertrude.

“Commissioner, did you catch the Baron in an act of wrongdoing? Are there witnesses?”

It was then the Commissioner’s turn to glare sidelong and up at the taller Sieglinde.

“I did not, and we have no direct witnesses. Allow me to explain the matter–”

“You’ll be allowed. But first, I have to say, even common criminals deserve a chance to prove their innocence if they have been accused without witnesses. Why was she restrained?”

“I confessed.”

Sieglinde spoke up. Gertrude turned to face her with sudden interest.

The Commissioner cleared his throat.

“To elaborate, she confessed to the murder of the entire bridge crew of the cruiser Oathkeeper.” The Commissioner waited for Gertrude to have any response to this, but she was using all her power of concentration to avoid having a reaction to such a ludicrous scenario, and so said nothing while studying Sieglinde’s unshaken expression. While the Inquisitor silently questioned the brooding Baron, the Commissioner continued. “It is my understanding that Oathkeeper was ordered by the Grand Western Fleet to serve as part of the Rhinean Defense Forces in case the Republic’s forces penetrated the defenses at the Great Ayre Reach. According to the Baron, the bridge crew hatched a plot to defect to the Volkisch Movement forces in Rhinea. She ambushed and killed them in a melee and commanded sailors to sail the ship to Sverland where she hoped to turn herself in to the Royal Alliance. Clearly, she’s no helmsman — she was wildly off course, never made it to the Yucatan gulf, and we caught her here instead.”

Sieglinde closed her eyes and set her jaw, clearly bothered to be spoken about like this.

“Where is the Oathkeeper now?” Gertrude asked.

“It’s berthed in Ajillo substation with the rest of the Southern Fleet’s inoperable craft.”

“Inoperable?”

“When she surrendered, we struck its jets and towed it. We couldn’t take any risks.”

“But you confirmed the deaths of the crew?”

The Commissioner nodded his head. “We found the bodies in the ship morgue and no attempt was made to clean the Bridge. All of their wounds were consistent with a chaotic brawl. You can review the evidence yourself, but everything ultimately matches the Baron’s own testimony. She did not hide anything from us, Inquisitor; however, she believes her monstrous act is justified. Several times after we took her into custody, she attempted to escape judgment, once she realized we would not simply agree with her that an entire Bridge crew had to be slaughtered.”

Sieglinde scoffed loudly.

“I misjudged you as men of honor, when you are clearly the same type of rats as the Volkisch.”

“Baron, you will keep silent for now. You’re in enough trouble.” Gertrude said.

The Commissioner took a step to the side, creating more room between himself and the Baron. He then addressed Gertrude once more. “Inquisitor, we would like to transfer this prisoner to your judgment. She surrendered herself to us, but as you are well aware, we can’t render the appropriate punishments because of her circumstances. Furthermore having custody of her puts us in a difficult position with regards to the current events. I hope you understand the situation.”

Gertrude was keenly aware of the Commissioner’s problem.

When the duchies rebelled and declared their intention to separate from the central Imperial government, it had a profound effect on the aristocracy. Every duchy had long lineages of noble families, and differing attitudes toward them. In Rhinea, a highly capitalistic and industrial state, the aristocrats were just old money. They were not seen as special or remarkable individuals. The disparate Volkisch movement had several anti-noble factions. Similarly, the anarchists in the duchy of Bosporus and the communists in Buren were united in their hatred for the nobles.

Veka’s nobles were largely bankrupt save for the ruling ducal family, and easily cowed into submission.

Skarsgaard’s nobles had small institutional power compared to the might of the church, despite their coffers.

Erich von Fueller expressed no interest in retaining a relationship with the aristocrats writ large. He had not declared himself Emperor and had not called for the aristocracy to join with him against the usurpers. He had already carefully cultivated his personal allies and was extending no other hands. Some aristocrats even accused him of fomenting the attack on Vogelheim to kill their heirs.

The Imbrium Empire had codified rights and privileges for the aristocrats, but many had wasted their wealth, fallen into debt, and failed to adapt to the economy of the modern Imbrium. In many states, there had been a mass transfer of wealth from the aristocracy to an industrial class of rich “new money” capitalists. Access to capital, workers, industries, and innovations trumped the privilege of one’s title or the worth of one’s ancient holdings, particularly when the real value within those duchies had become the protected, private property of the capitalists and not the nobles.

All of this led to the creation of an additional faction in the civil war: The Royal Alliance, formed by the coming together of like-minded aristocrats from across the Empire who wanted to preserve and even expand the privilege and power of the aristocracy. Or who simply needed a place to hide from the persecution in their home duchies. Taking all the assets they could run away with and leaning on their old money siblings and cousins who had achieved high positions in the old Imperial Navies; they gathered and began to build a resistance in the Yucatan Gulf to the northwest.

Sverland, which was still essentially an underdeveloped colony and had little autonomy from the central Imperial government, became the chosen ground for their own movement, as it had no ability to defend itself from them.

Knowing these developments it was easy to see how Sieglinde was a problem for Serrano.

As a noble and a war hero, Sieglinde would be highly valuable to the Royal Alliance. As a killer of men who swore themselves to Rhinea, the Volkisch would want her dead. Both these factions were descending on Sverland. Serrano had no means to oppose either of these factions and could not simply assume they would have reasonable reactions to Sieglinde’s presence there. More than likely, it would give each side an excuse to act more punitively.

By transferring Sieglinde, they would have a simpler position toward whoever appeared.

“What is the status of the Southern Border Fleet?” Gertrude asked.

“Essentially disbanded.” Said the Commissioner. “Lord Admiral Gottwald started the year with maybe a hundred functional ships. A quarter of the fleet was already just stuck in Ajillo and Pepadew awaiting a fleet overhaul that never came to pass due to the Emperor’s passing. After the death of Lord Groessen, and Lord Gottwald’s failed punitive expedition, only a handful of ships returned. Some incorporated into our patrol fleet; but we also lack supplies to maintain readiness.”

“So if the Volkisch Movement invaded southern Sverland, what would be your plan?”

“Surrender, obviously. But you see, the Baron’s presence could complicate that process.”

“Understood. I will take the Baron into custody. Do not expect any further assistance from me. If you’re not looking to fight, then I will be organizing some of those men for my own purposes. Erich von Fueller pays a damn sight better than you lot do, at this point, so it shouldn’t be hard. I expect to receive the patrol roster before I depart.”

“Very well. You have our support to do as you please with, Lady Lichtenberg. Good luck.”

The Commissioner had a truly bitter look. At his side, Sieglinde almost looked a bit smug.

He and his entourage departed with their heads hanging low. Their future was bleak.

Gertrude did not envy them. She escorted Sieglinde back to the Iron lady and stopped her just before the cargo elevator. Gertrude was quite tall for an Imbrian, man or woman, but Sieglinde was almost 190 centimeters. To lock eyes with her meant looking up at her, and this was foreign to Gertrude. She suppressed a hint of bitterness toward the tall, perfect noble who was constantly giving her such a childish, petulant expression, as if caught drinking underage and scolded. She looked like– like a princess pouting when things did not go her way. An ignorant demeanor.

“You are incredibly lucky to have the protection of your family title.” Gertrude said.

Her hand reached out, and she jabbed Sieglinde in the chest sharply. Sharper than intended.

Gertrude’s aggression toward the noblewoman was starting to boil over too rapidly.

To think, while certain others were dead through no fault of their own, this fool was–

“I won’t accept pity for my family circumstances. Try me as you would any other.”

Sieglinde spoke up, cutting off Gertrude’s train of thought. She found her words offensive.

“You led a massacre on your own ship! I’m not unsympathetic to your reasons, but if you were any normal person Serrano’s guards would have simply killed you where they found you! But you’re the last scion of a noble title. Whether you like it or not, your adopted name is why we are talking. You need to have some perspective here, Baron. Your conduct has been erratic and naïve, and that childish face you’re making belies your foolishness.”

“Inquisitor, I do not care what you make of my character. So what will you do to me?”

“I guarantee the fullest extent of the law will be carried out upon you.”

“Then mete out justice however the law says you should. When I drew a weapon on those scoundrels, I was prepared to face any torment that befell me for it. That is the righteous thing–”

Gertrude slapped Sieglinde across the face. Her anger had swelled for a tragic instant.

“These are not righteous times, you imbecile! Are you just throwing away your life?”

Tears.

Tears welled up in Sieglinde’s eyes. Her cheek red where she had been struck.

She raised a hand to hold down the reddening flesh that was once so pearlescent.

Gertrude realized how far she had gone and felt horrified with herself.

Not as a matter of privileges; Sieglinde’s privilege did not matter to her.

But as a matter of humanity. Since when had she become someone who abuses her charges?

Sieglinde looked to all the world like that hand had cut across her very soul.

Weeping openly, teeth grit with frustration. A woman nearly ten years Gertrude’s senior.

“What is it about my face that invites so much abuse?” She whimpered, sobbing openly.

“Baron, I’m so sorry.” Gertrude said. “I was frustrated, and I got out of hand with you.”

She raised her hand gently but lowered it immediately when she saw the Baron flinch.

“I will accept my punishment, Inquisitor. But if you think you will earn my respect and cooperation by beating me, no one has, and many have tried.” She grit her teeth. “If you presume to lecture me, then put away your hands! Otherwise, you will have to shackle and muzzle me again, like an animal, because you will turn me into an animal. Send down your damned elevator when you’re ready, but do not speak to me until your pointless anger abates!”

Sieglinde stormed off toward the Iron Lady’s cargo elevator without awaiting a response.

Gertrude watched her go, silent, ashamed of herself.

Her eyes went down to her feet and her fists were at her sides. Everything was in pieces. She felt suddenly that she was deluding herself. What authority did she even have? There was no law that could try Sieglinde. And maybe Sieglinde’s was the right attitude. In this horrifying maelstrom, Sieglinde did what she could to fight back. Even if it cost her life; her life was cheap. All their lives were cheap. What was Gertrude judging her for? That she lived when Elena didn’t?

Gertrude was the one who had failed.

Standing alone in the lowest docks of a backwater southern port, unable to affect anything in her life. She was unable to save the person she loved when it mattered. She had no power to save the citizens of the Empire from the civil war that was brewing around them. She could barely keep them from the depredations of bandits and opportunists. An Inquisitor who served a Justice that had fully collapsed, who struggled for a life she had lost in the span of a night. Leader of a crew that was adrift, far from home, without a master to serve or any ability to return.

Maybe Sieglinde still stood for something. And maybe in this era that had become naïve.

At that moment Gertrude wanted to raise her head to the steel sky and scream.

Then her eyes met with the eyes of a stranger, stealing away on a cargo elevator.

Ascending into the belly of a nondescript old cargo vessel, like a pearl lost in the sand.

For a moment, the world stopped moving. For an instant, Gertrude was transfixed, frozen.

Her time had stopped. It stopped the moment she randomly, fatefully, met those eyes.

She felt as if she had glanced into a broken seam that once stood between her lived reality and an impossible otherworld. Her eyes pored over the figure in that cargo elevator that was slowly, slowly disappearing, and with a ravenous hunger snatched every single detail about her that they could. Was it really her? Could it possibly be her despite everything that had happened?

They saw each other. Gertrude knew that her longing gaze had been reciprocated.

Those bright indigo eyes, full of intellect, magnificence, regality. Her skin, pearlescent and untouched, her features nymph-like, delicate, with soft lips and cheeks. That perfectly silken hair that fell down her back like a cascade, luxurious even when painted black. That lithe, ethereal figure, fairy thin even with her small shoulders draped beneath a sleek business-like suit.

It couldn’t be.

Gertrude’s eyes drew wider. Her breath caught. Her heart stopped. Obsessively, feeling insane, her eyes followed that woman until she disappeared. It couldn’t be. Elena was gone. Gertrude had lost her. Gertrude had failed her. Gertrude, the tragic fool, the puppet of fate, who had dared to surpass her station and taste the forbidden fruit. Who had dared to love an Imperial princess condemned to a beautiful bird cage in Vogelheim. In those eyes, in the soft skin of her hands, in the delicate flesh between her legs, Gertrude found heaven. But God had cast her down from that heaven. It just could not be Elena; it was insane to think so, because Elena had to be gone.

She had to be gone for Gertrude to suffer, for Gertrude to be punished forevermore.

This was some random woman she was obsessing over– but those eyes! Those indigo eyes!

Gertrude, whose fate had been defined by those gorgeous indigo eyes, could not turn away.

She recalled the maids, those survivors of Vogelheim who said a strange woman took her.

Did she dare dream? What would Dreschner or Ingrid say to these wild fantasies? How could she possibly prove that woman was Elena? How could she even prove Elena was still alive to begin with? How did she survive the tragedy that Gertrude had brought upon her? There was so much against her, so much of her logic was strained, but Gertrude wanted– needed to believe. She needed an inkling of hope so she could take a step forward in any direction.

Dumbfounded, she watched for what seemed like an eternity, until the ship began to move.

Her entire body shook with fear and frustration and elation and madness, sheer madness.

“Dreschner,” Gertrude tapped her ear, breath ragged. “Call the tower– the cargo ship– the one there–”

She couldn’t speak as she watched that ship of fate disembarking from the port.

Elena was alive. Someone had taken her to this ship. Elena was on board.

That ship was leaving the port with Elena in it!

How could they have taken her? Was Vogelheim entirely a plot to steal Elena?

Were they working with the Volkisch? Where were they taking her?

“I’m sorry, Lady Lichtenberg, you may be breaking up?” Dreschner replied.

Gertrude watched with wide open eyes, moving as if in slow motion, suspended as if in the water outside of the station, cold and crushed with the pressure of what was happening. That cargo ship transferred through its berth and started on its way. Where could it possibly be going? Whoever took Elena from Vogelheim, they already had a chance to deliver her to the Volkisch or to the Royal Alliance if they were in Sverland. But they bypassed Rhinea and the Yucatan Gulf and traveled this far south. If they were in Serrano, what places could they possibly take her to–

“Veka.”

Those words rose to her lips like hot bile. Could it be the Vekans?

Was it– was it anything to do with Victoria? Victoria who had become van Veka?

Gertrude had confirmed that Sawyer was present at Vogelheim. So then, could it be–

Her head was racing, but a terrible clarity emerged to tie together disparate pieces.

As if all of the naivety of their childhood had resulted in this evil time they were living in.

“Dreschner, I want Schicksal to gather as much information as she can on that ship, that cargo ship that just left from the berth next to us! I believe they have a VIP hostage! We must prepare to depart right away and go after it! We’ll need boarding parties, Divers, cutters– we have to catch up and detain them! Understood?”

Anxiety brimmed under her skin like electric bolts as she awaited Dreschner’s response.

“Of course Inquisitor, it shall be arranged right away.”

He did not question her. Of course, Dreschner would never question her.

She was Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg and nobody on the Iron Lady would question her.

Even as she descended with all of her fury on some cargo ship, purely out of wild emotion.

“I’m insane. I’m going insane.” She mumbled to herself as soon as she was off the line.

With a trembling jaw and tearful eyes she looked over to the cargo elevator.

Sieglinde had her back to her, head bowed, awaiting her fate.

Gertrude drew in a breath, purged her face of emotion, set her jaw, straightened her back.

Maybe she was going insane. But she was driven by an inkling of the radiance she had pursued all her life and thought lost forever. For the warmth of that light, she would do anything.

More than justice, it was that light which held the meaning of her life.


Previous ~ Next

Thieves At The Port [5.2]

Late at night, manning the Torpedo Warfare station on the bridge of the Brigand, Alexandra Geninov leaned forward and rested her head against the controls on her computer, yawning and moaning. She was supposed to get up and check the other stations soon. Bored out of her skull and just a little bit antsy, she began to drift in and out of various fantasies. Looking at each station reminded her of her officer cadre. There was a good crop of officers on the Brigand. A whole bridge full of beauties.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh.”

From the station on her right, a wheezy laugh echoed through the nearly empty bridge.

She ignored it.

Her station clock read 23:15 — the graveyard shift. The Captain said it was her turn for it.

Alex stood up from her station and walked over to Fatima’s, the buxom, raven-haired Shimii officer who worked on sensors. She picked up Shimii-compatible headphones and listened in for a moment at the sounds of the Ocean, while thinking about what it would be like to have cat ears. She tried not to think too much about touching Fatima’s ears. That was not professional– but like, everyone was thinking it, you know. That was Alex’s justification for herself. Fatima was hot as hell. No one would blame her for thinking that.

Alex sighed. She could not parse a single god damn sound she was hearing.

However, the station itself had a trained computer that could classify the sounds, and it was classifying everything Alex was hearing as “biologics.” As far as Alex was concerned this meant she did not have to care about it. Aside from a gorgeous and elegant profile, Fatima also had golden ears; only she could tell anything from the mess of sounds coming through the passive sonar.

Alex could not.

Still, as the graveyard shifter, it was her job to monitor the stations.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Ignoring the grating laughter coming from behind her, she moved on to Semyonova’s station.

Communications was the easiest thing to check. Everything was digital and user-friendly. Contrary to a layman’s understanding of it, the Ocean was extremely noisy, because water was amazing at conducting sound waves. Not all of those sound waves were audible to humans, however. Unaided human ears out in the water would not hear too much more than water itself moving around them, but ship instruments could parse the subtle cacophony of the seas with such high fidelity that it was possible to hear fish bubbles and crabs walking on the rocks. Ships would be bombarded with sounds at all times.

However, modern acoustic messages were special sounds that a computer interpreted data from. It was very rare that a whale call or something of the sort was incorrectly interpreted as an acoustic message. Because the throughput on acoustic messages was abysmal, they could only transmit text. So Semyonova’s station showed her the result of the ship’s constant parsing for the unique sounds of acoustic messages, and dumps of the translated text from the messages.

She had a few other tools for connecting laser calls, broadcasting over the ship monitors and other advanced stuff. Alex loved all the pre-recorded messages Semyonova had set up for minor itinerary items. There was a tool on her screen that controlled them. She almost thought of setting up the breakfast message to run several times — Semyonova had a really sexy laugh in that one. Instead, however, she just peeked into the inbox to spy on whatever military comms they got.

There was nothing on that screen for her to see, of course.

After printing messages to sheets of rock paper, they were passed on to the Commissar, who determined whether they would be stored and where, or destroyed them herself. Semyonova always deleted them from her station once she was done. It was standard operating procedure.

Semyonova was very dutiful, but she had such a happy-go-lucky charm too.

Blond, busty, plump; a lady you could hang on to. Semyonova was pretty hot too.

And of course, there was the first time they met. She had a messy side!

That discrepancy was something true connoisseurs like Alex referred to as a gap moe.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

A laugh that was like nails scraping furiously on a chalkboard.

Alex ignored the chill down her spin and drummed her fingers on the station, sighing deeply.

She was just a hopeless woman of culture, astray in an ocean of luscious temptations.

“Keep it together Alex. You’re a professional.” She mumbled to herself.

In situations like this, the devil on her shoulder always won out over the angel.

After all, what was she supposed to do while just sitting here? The Captain wouldn’t let her have video games on the Bridge. And of course, that bitch Captain also made her take the graveyard shift even though Alex argued passionately against it. At least she had the decency to have that air of sultry, mature, experienced beauty while she chided Alex. Captain Korabiskaya was a woman who really could have taught a younger girl like Alex a thing or two in private–

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Alex’s daydreams of being corrected by her blond bombshell of a Captain were cut short.

SHUT UP.

She had wanted to shout it out, but she was ultimately too cowardly to do so.

Alex stomped over to the electronic warfare station.

Unlike most of the other stations, which were very specialized instruments, the electronic warfare station was an ordinary terminal running a shell displaying a running log of ship computer diagnostics and networking data while idle. Alex knew a little bit about computer programming from her mastery of video games. Electronic warfare was pretty esoteric, but this officer station was also linked to the supercomputer.

She barely knew Zachikova, the electronic warfare specialist. During the Leviathan attack a few days ago she had been indisposed. When she came back, she stuck to her duties and said very little. She had a cold, robotic air; kind of skinny and pale, but with a certain edge to her. Maybe Zachikova was a special operations psycho, tempered through a life of peril and action. Someone who had seen all kinds of horrible things.

Alex had matured, complex tastes. She could appreciate a lady who could kill her.

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Listening to that laugh was the mental version of stepping barefoot on glass.

“I can’t hear myself think through your stupid cackling! Could you shut up?”

“Hmm?”

Before she realized it, Alex had said it aloud. There was no taking it back.

From that corner of the bridge, a young woman made a noise to communicate her offense.

She put down the hand-held she had been reading from.

“Do you take offense to me using this time to enrich myself with cultural experiences as opposed to staring at the walls as you have been? Is my serene and maidenly laughter so vexing to you?”

Right next to Alex’s Torpedo Warfare station was the Main Gunnery station.

Seated at this station was Alex’s erstwhile “partner” in the graveyard shift, Ensign Fernanda Santapena-de la Rosa. She was pleasant to look at, if not to hear, but something about her was simply off and Alex couldn’t stand it. Her expression hardly helped, her soft lips were often curled into some domineering evil grin, and her disconcerting pink-red eyes could open much too wide when she was speaking. She wore a lot of makeup, purple on her lips and dark wine-red shadow around her eyes. Her hair was a colorful blond with a few purple highlights, slightly wavy, worn long with fluffy bangs and tied low with a thick band.

She wore the Treasure Box Transports skirt uniform over a black bodysuit, with a dark purple tie and the top buttons undone so that her collar stuck out. Her bodysuit was sleek and thin, and the tight, sleeveless design of the TBT shirts accentuated the soft curve of her shoulders and the ampleness of her chest, while the skirt complimented the length and definition of her legs–

Alex stopped and mentally shook herself out of such observations.

For her pride, she wanted to remain angry at Fernanda. In her unique estimation she would only say that Fernanda had interesting aesthetics ruined by a challenging personality that made Alex want to fight back.

“Fern, as it turns out you’re insanely fucking annoying, and I guess you want to be that way?”

“Hmph! You should be happy that I am here to grace your lonely self with my presence. Of course, how can I expect a refined appreciation of beauty from some droll competitive gamer?”

“What did you say to me? Talking shit about gaming? Do you wanna have a go?”

“Woe betide me! I am so threatened! Will you jump on my head until a coin comes out?”

“I’ll jump on your head when I’ve put it to the ground you fucking bitch–”

“Cut it out, now, you two.”

A sudden shout startled both Alex and Fernanda and ended their squabble immediately.

On the doorway to the bridge, the huge figure of Security Chief Akulantova appeared.

Partially shaded in the dim hall outside, her face looked much more unfriendly than usual. She was human, all Pelagis were human, but the gloom over her was just terrifying. Her height, the width of her shoulders and chest, she was built like she could squash Alex– particularly in her thighs–

No! That mindset had to be put to bed. Alex had to get serious now. The Chief was there!

Akulantova stared at the two of them and sighed, scratching her long, pale hair idly.

“Look, this is unbecoming of you two. I can understand it when sailors get rowdy but seeing officers fighting is just distasteful.” She said. “If I have to break up an officer slap fight, I’ll be mighty cranky about it.” She smiled at the two of them in a way that exposed some sharp teeth and turned her words into threats. “You two should kiss and make up. Graveyard shift sucks without a buddy. Trust me, I’m well aware.”

 “Yes ma’am!”

Fernanda and Alex pacified at once. Not in a million years would they challenge the Chief.

Akulantova smacked her hand against the steel wall of the bridge interior, as if just to make a loud noise. It caused Fernanda and Alex to jump again. Laughing at the two of them, she turned around and left the room. Alex watched her go. She realized she really had been extremely immature– in her defense, she had also been extremely bored, and she was not much of a night person, she told herself.

Both of the officers stared at one another in shock for a few moments, before taking note of the awkward silence and simply turning the other cheek on each other, still feeling too catty.

Fernanda picked her tablet back up and started reading again.

Alex finished checking the stations.

She was then confronted with having to return right to Fernanda’s side.

Their stations were closely adjacent. Why did she have to have that bitch for a neighbor?

Get a hold of yourself, Alex thought, finding her composure, Chief Shark is right. This silly shit is beneath you. You’re going to apologize because you’re the strong, confident, sexy biracial chick. Sometimes you just let the uppity bottom get the W on you, and it makes you look cool.

“Fernanda, maybe I’m a little sorry–”

“Heh, heh, heh, heh,”

Alex grabbed hold of her own hair and grit her teeth at the sound of that laugh.

What was with that laugh? How did it penetrate the recesses of her brain so deeply?

Sighing deeply, she walked over to her station and sat down.

She had about several hours left in her night shift. Then Fatima would relieve her and Fern.

Looking over to her right, Alex saw Fernanda deeply immersed in her tablet.

Hoping for a truce, she made the best effort she could to reach out.

“So, what’s got you guffawing so much anyway? Are you reading something?”

“Hmm?”

Fernanda looked up from the tablet as if she had to physically peel herself away from it.

She turned a narrow-eyed glare at Alex as if she were suspicious of her.

“Oh? Taken an interest now? Would you like my head to remain raised then?”

“Hey, I’m trying to be nice, ok? And I said I was sorry, but your wheezy laugh cut me off.”

“My laugh is beautiful. I will suffer no one to impugn the dignity with which I–”

“Why do you talk like that?”

“My speech is sophisticated, full of culture–”

“Okay, okay. You’re perfectly lovely and fine. Truce?”

Alex held up her hands like she had a gun pointed at her.

Fernanda studied her expression carefully and then seemed satisfied with herself.

Truly a wretched character! Who knew what was going on behind all the eyeshadow?

“Well, I shall take this as supplication. It is a long-running series of fantasy stories.”

Fernanda turned her tablet around to show Alex that she was indeed reading books.

“How come you get to read fantasy novels and I can’t play video games at my station?”

“If I were the arbiter of such things I would not abide you to pursue your shooters or platformers in here either. We all have borne witness to how easily your attention drifts at the mere mention of anything–”

“Wait, what, you know game genres? What do you play then?”

Alex blinked and stared at Fernanda, who puffed herself up with pride in return.

She put the back of her slender, gloved hand to her lips, and let out a terrible laugh.

“Perhaps that shall become a mystery you could unveil with time– or perhaps never!”

“Why are you like this? If you know the kind of games I play and you know enough to bug me about them specifically, you must also be a gamer! What do you play, RPG games; text games?”

Fernanda continued to stare down her nose at Alex. “Puzzle this out: what if one could peruse interactive digital entertainments without being cursed to wear the filthy appellation of gamer and what it constitutes. Ever thought of that? Perhaps I am above such plebeian labels, unlike you.”

“Plebeian? What the hell are you talking about? It’s your brain that’s fucking filthy!”

There was a slam on the back wall that caused Fern and Alex to jump again.

One long, lean, muscular arm reached out from the hall through the automatic door.

Soon as Fern and Alex looked, Chief Akulantova had retreated back to her rounds.

Both of them felt a chill down their spine and a certain pressure to cooperate.

“So, fucking, anyway, your book. Is it a comedy? You’re always laughing at it.”

Fern switched just as fast as Alex had away from their previous dead-end conversation.

“It is nothing so base and low as mere comedy. They are sweeping epics of high adventure that encompass all facets of the human emotional experience. I am drawn to excitement when characters I love seize upon the chances which they are given by fate, to make their destinies–”

Alex reached out and snatched the tablet from Fern’s hands.

“Huh? Hey, give that back– I mean, how dare you abscond with–”

Rotating on her chair, Alex turned her back on Fern and flipped to a random page.

Hovering behind her, Fern seemed to quickly resign herself while Alex read.

She found herself in a scene where a young knight confronted a powerful witch. Magic spells were flung at the knight with great detail, and the knight’s cleverness in evading the attacks or rendering them null with her own innate skills or magic items filled out the page. Alex began skimming the explanations, she wouldn’t get anything out of it without reading the whole story. Eventually, the knight overcame the witch through some long-form trickery and pinned her against a wall.

Then the witch began to weep. She cried in pain, lightly wounded by the knight’s attacks, begging the knight to explain why she had abandoned her and why she had only returned now to hurt her, why she had taken the side of the knights who had wronged them. Alex’s interest was piqued but they were also recounting pages and pages of Witch backstory that referenced other previous Witch backstory and Alex just could not keep up with it without having read everything.

Skimming ahead a bit more– then she hit a page with something odd.

She skimmed back a few paragraphs to try to confirm what was happening.

The Knight, having heard the entreaties of the Witch, responded.

“I am impoverished in verbal expression, but I will make my true self known to you with deed instead of word. I brought you low in battle solely so I could open you to my real feelings.”

She grabbed hold of the Witch’s head with one hand and kissed her strongly.

Her other hand grabbed hold of the Witch’s groin, fingers entering her slick folds–

That was quite enough.

Alex turned back around, laughing through her teeth at Fernanda.

She tapped her fingers on the tablet. “So, hey, about this human emotional experience–”

“Parlay!” Fernanda cried out, flustered. Her face was beet-red. It was actually– cute?

“Parlay?”

“Return the device to me, and we can discuss terms to seal your lips about this matter.”

Fernanda was extremely serious. She really looked concerned Alex would expose her.

“I’m just making fun; I’m not gonna tell anyone! You don’t have to be so stuck up.”

Alex handed over the tablet and sighed openly.

Fernanda looked to be her age, but clearly there was something odd going on upstairs. She had heard Fern was an incredible shot who scored kills with secondary guns at the battle of Thassalid. Like everyone on the Brigand, she was competent at her station. And like everyone at the Brigand, she was an eccentric.

An eccentric genius, with a terrible laugh that juxtaposed her fairy-like, demure beauty.

Maybe that was a way to look at her if Alex was feeling charitable.

Feeling exhausted, the resident gamer turned back around and returned to her station.

At her side, Fernanda put down her tablet and tapped on her shoulder to get her attention.

A socially depleted Alex turned a tired expression to Fernanda. “What’s up now?”

“How shall I say this– I am willing to acquiesce to the truce you proposed earlier.”

She stretched out a hand.

Alex thought of doing something quirky like laying a kiss on it.

Instead, she just shook her hand. But she couldn’t help trying to get the last word.

“Maybe I’ll even learn to ignore that harpy-like shrieking you get up to every so often.”

Of course, Fernanda would not take that lying down either.

“It is your sole good fortune that I am indebted to you and in a good mood, gamer.”

So much for a truce! Both of them were just catty bitches by nature, Alex realized.

As the night shift dragged on, however, the two of them were able to keep the peace.

“You definitely play roleplaying games.” Alex said. “You look like an RPer to me.”

Fernanda turned her cheek. “Do not push your luck, gamer, or I might hex you.”

A small semblance of peace, at least.

As much peace as anyone who agreed to this insane mission could hope for.


What was it like to live on a ship?

Moribund in the Ocean with a terrifyingly, overwhelmingly massive mission?

Surely, the nature of the Brigand’s mission must have weighed on everyone’s minds; and yet, there was one woman, for whom it must have been a burden, who slept soundly. She had a dreamless sleep, and when the clock decided that day had come, in lieu of an alarm, a soft, almost mournful voice sang through her room. It was a woman’s voice, singing about lost love and opportunities missed in a rich, deep voice.

Gently and comfortably, this sumptuous voice lifted the owner of the room out of sleep.

Life on a ship did not preclude such little pleasures.

Everything was digital, after all.

Captain Ulyana Korabiskaya sat up gently in her bed. She reached out to the wall and where her fingers touched, a keypad manifested. She executed a command to shut the music off. Everything was a little more difficult on a ship than it was on a station, due to all the high security. However, this was perhaps the most graceful awakening the Captain had in her bed in months. On any other day she might have been nursing a hangover. That morning, she was perfectly sober.

No headache, no nausea, no acid in her throat.

“You’re such a mess, Yana. When you’re clean, you just think about being drunk.”

She chided herself, took a deep breath, and stood up from her bed.

In her mind, she bounced around her duties for the day as she buttoned up her shirt and patted down her skirt; as she did her tie and collected her blond hair into a neat, professional bun; as she donned the teal jacket with the fake logo for the fake company she was pretending to work for.

She thought, briefly, of wearing the jacket off shoulder. She was proud of the lean, strong curve of her shoulders. She had let herself go a bit from her peak, but she was still pretty fit overall, and those shoulders were a gift from God that even a poor workout regime wouldn’t take from her.

“No, no. I’m the Captain. I should keep it regulation.”

Yana pulled her jacket back over her shoulders. She did keep it unzipped.

She dabbed on some red lipstick and a bit of concealer for a mature, feminine touch.

Then she set out for the bridge.

Everyone was counting on her to be the center, the rock of stability. No mission was easy.

Every ship was always in danger. At all times, the Ocean around that ship was trying to crush it, the life-giving oxygen within the ship threatened to escape, food dwindled away, precious energy was lost, and enemies moved invisibly within the distant waters. If one truly wanted to live in unending anxiety, one could. There were all sorts of things one could worry about. This was why even the Captain could so easily set aside the enormity of her mission and simply carry out her tasks and responsibilities. Fomenting rebellion in the Empire was ultimately no grander an endeavor than living under the Ocean, where humanity was unwelcome. She got over that enormity, the same way she got over staring at the oxygen meters.

So, what was left, was the routine, and keeping in mind the things she needed to do.

Her head swam with maps, diagrams of fleet strategy, a list of ship duties to check up on.

Out in the halls of the ship, there were always a few people around, coming and going. When Yana exited her room, she found herself confronted with a panel bolted off, exposing the wiring and tubing that ran through every wall of the ship. There were a pair of sailors in protective gear digging into the cabling with a woman overlooking their work. They had several instruments with them for a purpose the Captain could not immediately discern, so she smiled and approached.

“Good morning, Chief Lebedova. Anything interesting?”

Yana addressed the woman standing with the two sailors. She half-turned her head when spoken to, smiled, and saluted when she noticed it was the Captain speaking to her. “Good morning Captain. Just a routine checkup, voltages, and water pressure and all that. Nothing to worry about.”

“I assumed so, but it’s curious to see the Chief Technician overseeing work personally.”

“I do have more technical things I could be doing, but when it’s early days like this, I like to watch my boys and girls working.” Lebedova said. “I’ve been to a lot of workgroups today already. I want them to know I’m a resource for them and that I’m available to help with any task.”

Chief Galina Lebedova crossed her arms with a delighted expression, looking at the working sailors in front of them. Yana had met her in full uniform before the voyage and thought she seemed a bit unassuming for a chief mechanic. She expected a rough taskmaster, but found a round-faced, soft-cheeked woman in a pristine skirt uniform, mature, tidy, and fairly soft spoken.

Now that she was on duty, she really blew Yana’s stereotypical preconceptions away.

She was dressed primarily in padded coveralls worn over a black bodysuit, with a utility belt around her hips with a host of common tools and a pair of fastening loops from which a metal welding mask and a gas mask hung at her sides. However, she wore the coveralls to the waist with the sleeves tied around her belly since she was not directly involved in rough work at that time. This exposed her upper body, and especially the definition of her shoulders, back and arms, and the ampleness of her chest– while she was no Akulantova, she clearly worked out at least half as much as the Security Chief did.

Certainly, she hit the gym more often than Yana ever had.

“On duty” Lebedova wore a bit of red lipstick and concealer just as Yana had, but in that sense looked more improvised than when they had previously met. She was a bit shorter than Yana, which was convenient for someone who had to squeeze into small spaces at times. Her long, black hair had blue streaks, and she tied it into an elegant braid behind the back of her head. That much was unchanged.

On the whole, she looked like the second strongest woman that Yana had met.

Yana tried to conceal her admiration but still gave Lebedova a bit of praise.

“I see. It sounds like our ship is in really good hands.”

“I’m flattered, Captain.”

She turned a lovely smile and laughed out loud with Yana.

Despite their conversation, the two sailors with them were diligent and did not allow themselves to be distracted. With the chief watching, they were a little tense, and really making sure to document everything, take no shortcuts, and do everything exactly by the book. Or at least, their stance and the way they whispered to each other gave Yana that sort of impression.

That’s a good mentality– to be a resource for your crew.

Yana had to give it to Chief Lebedova, they were the same age, but she had such a confident maturity to her. She supposed this was the kind of strength one built by remaining in the world of the sailors, rather than the pampered confines of the Bridge crew. Roughly two thirds of the crew of any ship was composed of sailors, and while they did none of the fighting, they were the lifeblood of the ship. Sailors maintained and repaired the ship, and there was a lot of ship to maintain and repair. They routinely crawled into the guts of the ship that an officer rarely ever saw.

“What is your impression of the ship so far, Chief?” Yana asked Lebedova.

For people like the Chief Technician and the Chief of Security, as well as the Chief Reactor Engineer and other such positions, despite them ranking below the Captain, everyone was used to calling them ‘Chief’, even the Captain. Lebedova was technically a Senior Specialist, but everyone knew her as the ‘Chief’ of her broader technical area. That was the sort of respect she had earned.

“It’s a very curious vessel.” Lebedova replied. “It almost feels generational, in a sense, like you can dig into the cabling and find the layers an archeologist would in cored rock. I did hear that it was built over the past decade. Some of the instruments are so brand new they have no regulation and some look like they slapped together a bunch of parts that got surplused out to a station plaza.”

“Well, I really hope the latter aren’t very important.” Yana said, giggling a bit.

Lebedova responded with a little grin. “Don’t worry, we’ll keep everything running.”

She winked. Yana really hoped it wasn’t the guns or anything like that.

“You have a meeting with that girl, Zachikova, to discuss that matter today, right?” Lebedova asked.

“Oh, yes. Has she spoken with you?”

“Spoken? It was practically an interrogation. That Zachikova is relentless. A very scary girl.”

Yana had given the Electronic Warfare officer, Zachikova, a special mission to look for more eccentricities in the ship design and catalog everything. After Helmsman Kamarik found extra thrusters on the ship, and Torpedo Officer Geninov complained about the layout of the torpedo tubes, Yana wanted to get far ahead of any other curious bits of the Brigand’s design.

“I did get the feeling she might get carried away.” She said.

“I survived it. I think she will have a lot to report back to you. Don’t keep her waiting.”

Lebedova turned back to the sailors and bent close over them to look at their work.

Yana took this as a good opportunity to make her way to the bridge and continue her day.

Along the way, she just happened to meet the person whom she ranked as the strongest woman she had ever seen. Chief Akulantova came walking down the hall to the bridge just as Yana was coming up to it. As always the Chief of Security was wearing her long coat, her baton and grenade launcher clipped to her pants. She never wore a hat, likely because of the fin-like cartilage on her head. Her hair was very smooth and shiny. She might have come back from a shower, or maybe she just took better care of it than Yana realized.

When she saw the Captain, she smiled and waved from afar.

“Good morning, Captain!”

“Good morning.”

They paused briefly upon crossing paths.

“You know, I always seem to see you on rounds. Are you getting enough sleep?”

“I’m fine! Fit as a white shark. Do I look tired? See, when my eyelids are like this–”

Akulantova pointed at her face. By all accounts she had a perfectly normal profile for a woman, but her eyes had a second set of thin lids. When the Captain looked at her as prompted, she closed them. It looked like her eyes were open but covered in translucent gray plastic for a moment.

“–I can sleepwalk my rounds! It’s a secret Pelagis trick and why we never get tired.”

Yana blinked at her. “Wait, really?”

“Of course not! You should look us up on an encyclopedia sometime!”

Akulantova burst out laughing.

“I’m in almost all respects a perfectly ordinary woman, Captain! How silly of you!”

“Fine, I walked into that one.” Yana sighed. “But then, are you sleeping enough?”

“I’m a bit of an insomniac, but trust me, if that becomes a problem, I’ll deal with it.”

The Pelagis crossed her well-muscled arms in front of her chest with pride.

“I will trust you, but please take care of yourself.” Yana reached out and patted Akulantova on the shoulder. “Not just if there’s a problem, but because you deserve rest like anyone else.”

“Well said! You’re quite right. I will keep that in mind; I suppose I’ll go on break then.”

From her coat, Akulantova withdrew a little tablet computer. It looked like a book reader. She raised the tablet to the Captain, as if to say ‘See? I’m going on break’. Then she went on her way, beaming and whistling, into the Security office. Presumably, Yana hoped, to rest a little bit.

“She is a pretty gentle soul, all things considered.”

Everyone on the Brigand was really such a hard worker. Yana hardly ever saw a Chief of Security patrolling all the time along with her staff on any of the ships served before. She hardly ever saw a Chief Technician running around either. She felt inspired to do her own part too.

Finally, after what already felt like an eventful morning, Ulyana made it to the bridge.

As soon as she went through the door, she found Commissar Aaliyah Bashara coming out.

Aaliyah nearly bumped into her, but she recovered with remarkable alacrity.

Her ears rose just a little straighter, and her tail stuck out.

For a moment, Yana saw herself in those bright orange eyes as they held contact.

“Captain on bridge! Attention all stations!”

Aaliyah turned from the door to face the main screen and the stations.

Yana waved at everyone on the bridge with a smile. “Good morning everyone! At ease!”

There were a few officers joining her on the bridge that morning.

There was Helmsman Abdulalim Kamarik, always punctual and engaged in his work as he made tiny corrections to the heading and engine power. Communications Officer Natalia Semyonova welcomed Ulyana to the bridge with a big, shining smile. Fatima al-Suhar stood sentinel on the sonar station, her headphones firmly on her fluffy, cat-like ears and actively immersed in the sounds of the ocean. Both of the main combat stations were empty. Ulyana had assigned Alexandra Geninov and Fernanda Santapena-de la Rosa to the late night shift. Both of them had earned a few extra hours of rest that morning.

Ulyana took her place in the Captain’s chair. Every day, she started official Captain business by checking the computer attached to her chair and bringing up the Bridge logs, a simple dashboard with records of every officer’s work. They could bring specific things to her attention from their stations or simply leave it to the Captain herself to look through the logs. Ulyana liked to look at both, checking the pins but at least skimming over the logs also. Because it was early on in their voyage and they were still in calm waters, there was nothing notable. Semyonova had not received any communications and al-Suhar had not reported anything. Kamarik’s log had coordinates for where the Brigand was traveling and logged energy usage and speeds.

After checking the logs, she looked at her own itinerary.

She had one meeting later with Zachikova and a few others, and she had made time to visit the lab and the reactor. Then she would return to the bridge, sit in the big chair, talk to the officers, take her meals. When a Captain was not giving orders, she had to remain available. Emergencies were never pinned on her itinerary. Her priority was to be responsible, and to be responsible she had to be aware and on top of things.

She realized at that point, looking at the clock, that she had failed to be available on time.

“I was about to go find you, you know.” Aaliyah said.

“I stopped along the way to meet a few people. I’ll be here at 0900 sharp next time.”

The Commissar took her place next to the Captain. When Yana started smelling the minty scent coming off Aaliyah’s hair, she began to realize just how close the seats were. She could have easily wrapped her arm around Aaliyah’s shoulder or touched her ears — if she wanted to invite a slap across the face.

Had Nagavanshi sat this close to her on Ulyana’s previous ships? Yana had a cool head, but it flustered her ever so slightly to have this specific Commissar seated so close.

“Communication is key, Captain. I will always gladly hold down the Bridge for you if you need it, but you must actually let me know. You have a direct line to me for that purpose. And our rooms are right next to each other.” Aaliyah did not sound offended, but she was stern as usual.

“It all happened rather spontaneously. But I’ll keep what you’re saying in mind.”

“You could do with being a little less spontaneous.”

That was not fair. Ulyana had been doing her very best to schedule everything.

She did not say anything back, however. No use trying to get the last word on Aaliyah.

“Kamarik, where are we now, and where are we headed?” Yana asked.

Below her, the Helmsman drew back from his station, turning in his chair to face her.

“We’re currently crossing the demilitarized zone at Cascabel to get through to Sverland and Imperial waters. It’s a popular spot for smugglers, I hear; insanely rocky terrain, real rough, plenty of cover from Imperial patrols. If you’re on my level, you can weave a dreadnought through here though. Pull it up on the main screen, you’ll see nothing but rocks for kilometers, Captain.”

“But there are no patrols right now. In fact, the Union’s moving to occupy Cascabel.”

Aaliyah added a bit of additional context. She put on a serious expression and continued.

“Do you know the history of Sverland, Captain?”

“I know some, at least, I know what I lived through myself. Lyser, Ferris and Campos were the most productive colonies in the Nectaris, while Sverland and Solstice essentially served as Imperial management and logistics hubs and Imperial military bases. When the productive colonies revolted, they put the Imperial hubs on a clock. Sverland went through a famine after the revolution because they relied heavily on food from Lyser. They went from princes to paupers.”

Ulyana did not often go back to those times.

It had felt like living in another world entirely; but it was an indelible fact of her life that she had fought in the revolution. She was sixteen when the call to action went out. She joined the revolutionary infantry and even piloted a Diver. Her first act of war had been to ambush and stab to death two guards at Sevastopol Station, which was once essentially a prison for mine workers. She put a screwdriver with a rounded head through a man’s eyes. All the abuse she suffered, all the killing she did– she truly didn’t want to remember it.

“That’s right, but do you know what happened after the revolution?” Aaliyah asked.

“There was a huge exodus of Imbrians from the Union territories to Sverland.” Ulyana said. This was still tapping into her own memories. She was not much of a historian — she truly was not fully aware of what the accepted historical narrative had become. “The Imbrians were the managerial class; they didn’t get along with the Volgians, Shimii and the dark-skinned North Bosporan workers. Some of them we actually exiled, but many ran away as if they feared us lynching them.”

Aaliyah nodded. “Union leadership in the ensuing years believed that the exodus would lead to a rebuilding of Sverland as an Imperial fort. So, our border here always felt very tenuous.”

 “It ended up not being much of a problem in the end, right?” Yana said, a bit too glibly.

“Well, it was fine thanks to people like Murati Nakara and no thanks to you.” Aaliyah said.

Ouch. Yana simply bit that one down. It was true. She’d chickened out of Thassalid Trench.

“It became an accepted orthodoxy that the Empire had a powerful standing border force, larger than the fleet that counterattacked during the Revolution. With any standing fleet, the challenge is being able to supply them enough to maintain readiness. We believed the Empire capable of supporting a huge fleet in Sverland. We could only have a small border force in Ferris.”

Aaliyah looked to the Captain to continue the conversation. Yana was nearing her limit.

“Right.” Yana said. “That’s logical. Our stations used to be prison factories, not big plentiful cities.”

 “Recently we’ve been able to interrogate Imperial soldiers and found that the Cascabel border is not as impregnable as we believed. Sverland’s readiness has fallen dramatically as the Empire refocused on fighting the Republic.” Aaliyah said. “Aside from remnants of the Imperial logistics train, the battle at Thassalid wiped out the combat power of the Cascabel border. There was not going to be a second wave from Sverland. So, HQ decided to extend Ferris’ patrols over the demilitarized zone before the Brigand set out.”

Ulyana whistled. Aaliyah really knew her stuff from working in security and intelligence.

“So that means we’re still in calm waters, basically.” Yana said. “We should probably not expect a ready force of warships that could counter us until we’re deeper into Sverland. If I had to take a guess, probably Serrano would be the next hub capable of supporting one. Am I correct?”

Yana smiled at Aaliyah, who in turn nodded her head and returned a little smile of her own.

“I think you’re right, Captain.” Aaliyah said. “We should always be alert, of course.”

“Whether or not there’s patrols out there is irrelevant, because we’re not getting seen.”

Kamarik bragged and returned to his station, continuing to monitor the ship’s movement.

“Aaliyah, could I trouble you with something?”

For a Captain, part of being a resource to others, was knowing how to use others as well.

Aaliyah’s cat-like ears perked up. She nodded her head. “I am at your disposal, of course.”

“Could you prepare situation reports for me? I like the way you explain things. I think I would be better informed if I discussed such matters with you. I give you full authorization for it.”

Captain Korabiskaya put on a cheerful face for her Commissar as she made her request.

Aaliyah looked like she was surprised to be receiving praise. Her cheeks reddened a bit.

“I can do that. It’s not unheard of. I assume Nagavanshi once did this for you?”

“For me? Nagavanshi? Hah! She did compile reports, but not because I asked her, and not for my benefit.”

Aaliyah’s tail curled. She looked a bit mystified at that response.


Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.6]

The Moon Under The Mountain

The “Vogelheim incident” caused the biggest stir in the Duchy of Bosporus.

Bosporus was the Empire’s earliest mining colony, characterized by brutal industrial labor juxtaposed with the academies training the next generation of Engineers and Overseers for the mines and factories. This volatile melting pot led Bosporus to become a hotbed of political activism. Labor unions, academic protesting and industrial sabotage boiled over in the background of the greatest expansion of Imperial dominion over the Oceans since the Age of Strife.

Dozens of stations arose from the materials gathered in Bosporus. Soon the Empire expanded southward, hungry for easier, cheaper materials now that Bosporus’ topsoil was rent asunder. The Empire established the colonies that would become the Union, offloading the indigens of Bosporus to these territories. The Empire hoped to “Imbrianize” Bosporus and end its colony status through deportations and assimilationist violence. Bosporus did not go quiet while Shimii, Volgians and other “ethnics” were deported south or forced to change their names and languages. Much to the Empire’s continued chagrin, Bosporus resisted Imbrianization as much as it could. The growing middle class of Bosporus continued to agitate in the Academies.

This was the situation, in brief, when Vogelheim set off a shockwave through the Empire.

Vogelheim terrified and infuriated the Bosporans. They did not care who it was that lived in that station. To them, it represented an escalation of fascistic violence that defied the simple condemnations that Erich Fueller and the aristocrats under him had leveled on the Volkisch. If Vogelheim could be destroyed, any station would be. The political left argued that the Volkisch was the Empire. There was nothing distinguishing these rival factions when it came to the people. The Volkisch, the Vekans, the Solcean zealots, all of them could attack innocent people at will.

Station by station an uprising spread. Political academics, black bloc anarchists, labor unionists, and even liberal democrats began to wrest political power from cowed ducal authorities. Protests, marches, riots, sabotage, the uprising encompassed every form of imaginable unrest. On a national level it was disorganized, but enough individual flashpoints burned all at once to cause a national effect. Police forces and the Bosporan Defense Forced had to overstretch themselves.

Tensions in the rest of the Empire marked a turning point in the Bosporan uprising. Rhinean aristocrats that fled to Sverland started to call for a Noble Alliance to form against the likes of the Volkisch and their industrial bourgeois allies, seeing them as the main rivals for power and the left as nascent and fragile. This had the effect that Bosporan nobles suddenly fled south to join this united front rather than fight in Bosporus where they were weak. It beheaded the ducal state.

Erich von Fueller’s march was stopped by the destruction of Vogelheim in his home state in the Palatinate. The pause of the Grand Western Fleet isolated the Bosporan Defense Forces from reinforcement. They began to face increasing mutiny on their ships and stations, as more and more forces defected to either the Volkisch, the Noble Alliance or the anarchist left in Bosporus.

Police became trapped in their stations with their uprisings, with no hope of reinforcement or heavy support. Uniforms started to come off. Slowly, but surely, there was nothing for them to fight for and nobody keep up the fight. No aristocrats to pay them, no officers to order them around, and increasingly militant crowds they could not hope to contain. The Uprising won the day.

Countless books would be written about the collapse of Bosporus.

The Duchy of Bosporus collapsed. That was the one fact they agreed on.

Living in that moment, the people of Bosporus had to decide what would replace it.

Individual stations created their own governments and institutions. Bosporus’ capital of Antioch declared itself a “Commune” hosting an alliance of anarchist street fighters and leftist academics. Various stations by popular vote became Republics, Workgroups, Socialist Unions. All of these microstates understood, however, the interconnected nature of life under the Ocean. They needed to trade goods and access specialized equipment and skills from other stations.

Ultimately, Antioch was chosen as the gathering place for representatives from the micro-states and the umbrella platform for Bosporan political activity became the “Bosporan Commune.” The Commune was declared to be an “Association” of independent peoples who recognized the need for broader cooperation. They sent multiple representatives to a “Popular Assembly” to draft guidelines and strike deals between each station. There were plenty of disagreements, particularly surrounding military matters, but a fear of the broader civil war tied the stations together.

Because of the civil war, having economic and social cooperation was not enough. The people of the Commune stations needed to pool their military power to defend their autonomy. Soon, individual ships and station forces organized and began to “freely associate” as a fleet while retaining their “political autonomy” as was the anarchist style at the time. These were collectively called the Popular Mobilization Forces. Their naval power fluctuated between 200 and 600 ships at any time, depending on who could be agreed to muster where, and for what cause.

Soon after their organization, these forces began their first campaign of the war.

There was a place southwest of Bosporus that connected Rhinea, Sverland and Skarsgaard. This junction was known as the Khaybar Mountain. What was now the “mountain” was once a massive island on the surface that fragmented and partially sunk, creating a landscape of high, rocky “walls” with a “pass” between. “Overflying” its jagged natural features could only be done in the photic zone at 200 meters depth. At this depth, Khaybar’s peaks teemed with Leviathans feasting on the rich environment of the island remnants. There was light, wildlife; a whole ecosystem. Deeper down, the Leviathan’s red blood and carcasses thickened the abyssal waters.

Navigating Khaybar allowed ships to bypass the borders of the other states. The ducal states and their merchant marines ignored Khaybar, however. The Imperial Navy considered it a “natural sanctuary.” Officially, nobody lived there, and ships should not attempt to go through it.

The people of Bosporus knew the official Imperial record to be a lie.

Khayber was a historical hotbed of attacks on ships. Someone was out there.

Those that survived such attacks spread rumors of a “Pirate Queen” and her enclave who ruled this area. There were those who believed this was a cover story for losing cargo or covering up mutinies or otherwise negligent behavior from shady merchants, corrupt Navy officers and mercenaries inventing tall tales to sell escort services. Others had confirmed the rumors firsthand, claiming to have made deals with the pirates in exchange for exotic goods or free passage.

In the civil war, Khaybar Mountain had a new importance for the anarchists.

PMF Scout ships delved into Khaybar for a deep passage to the south, hoping to make it to Campos or even the Union while bypassing the borders of the enemy states around them. Like many before them, these ships were lost in Khaybar without further contact. The PMF forces were busy defending the borders, so individual scout ships were all they could muster for the expedition.

This situation extended for weeks without resolution, unnerving the Commune forces.

Ultimately, a flotilla of “freely associating” anarchist ships organized independently to probe the Khaybar region for themselves. Unlike the PMF’s individual scout ships, they agreed to travel in a large group and to fight with organization. However, their intentions were outwardly peaceable and they wanted this to be known. That was the difference in their approach to the more strictly militarized PMF forces who expected and prepared for a fight, and broadcast that intention.

The so-called Free Ships hardened themselves for the fight but went to great lengths to avoid it. They bombarded the area with diplomatic signals. They sent out drones by the dozens. “We are the Bosporan Commune, and we wish to help you and work with you.” All over the Khaybar region any ship operating standard equipment would have heard their acoustic messages.

The Free Ships dared not go too far at first to avoid provocation. They were met only with eerie silence. Some of their drones were lost, mainly to the rough oceans and the creatures of the deep. However, the overwhelming majority of their drone fleet was untouched, broadcasting.

Several days passed without violence. Emboldened, communication attempts continued.

“My, what an interesting racket you’ve all made! Hold your positions. We will talk soon.”

Eventually, there was a response back, and this was all that was said at first. Instructions were given to the Free Ships for a proper communication. With trepidation, a laser signal was finally exchanged between anarchists and an old relay. Damaged as the relay was, they could not see much of a picture, but they did confirm a connection, and that there was a data transmission.

On that dark, crackly video feed they could barely make out a hooded figure in the static.

“My name is Majida al-Khaybari. I represent the people of Jabal Khaybar. We will allow one ship to approach whether with diplomats or soldiers. We don’t care who comes or what you bring with you as long as you follow our instructions. I am willing to talk with any of you.”

The Free Ships acknowledged Majida. This was the first positive step anyone had made.

Through a vote, one lead ship was elected from the Flotilla.

Elections decided the leadership of this one ship, and volunteers filled its ranks.

And so, the Eminent set off for the Khaybar pass.

It was a journey that tested the mettle and commitment of everyone involved.

Khaybar’s deep waters were darker than anything the Bosporans had ever seen. Every so often there was a dim glow from a creature or a colony of creatures with bioluminescence. As they delved deeper there were more bioluminescent corals and gas stalks and creatures, as if deliberately placed. Like gardens grown on rocky hillsides, at the bottoms of ravines and on sunken ships.

Sometimes there were fearful sights in that glow.

Carcasses of Leviathans speared into the ground as if totems shouting warning. Hulks of ships were anchored everywhere, many picked clean of weapons or armor. Every so often, the Bosporans thought they saw parties of workers in Diver suits picking metal from the wrecks. This was confirmed when they saw fresh wrecks and the timid people working on top of them.

Some of those ships had been Bosporan, reported missing weeks ago.

For the members of the free ships, these had been comrades.

On every one of the ships, there was a mark.

A half-moon with three slashes through it as if clawed by an animal.

“We shouldn’t be here. These people can’t be trusted. They’ve attacked us before.”

Such sentiments began to spread aboard the Eminent.

It was hard to keep discipline. The Khaybarians were not being especially welcoming.

One man among the Bosporans spoke up.

“We can’t just turn around now without even trying to speak to anyone! We have to try to make peace with the Khaybarians! Our Commune will be at war forever, with the entire rest of the world, if we cannot reach out to others outside our stations and find common ground!”

His name was Silas Batyrov. Before the uprising, he had been a history graduate.

Part of Bosporus’ “Imbrianized,” educated middle class from one of its famous schools.

“Majida al-Khaybari is a traditional Shimii name. I couldn’t see ears or anything in her picture.”

He had been murmuring such things to himself, thinking about the history of Bosporus.

An incredible amount of violence had been done to the Shimii. They were deported from their stations, forced to change their names, forced into slavery. Their culture had been destroyed. More than anyone in Bosporus, they suffered from being intolerable to the ruling Imbrian culture.

Khaybar earned its fearsome reputation in the past twenty or thirty years.

Had these people been Shimii, attacking ships just to survive this entire time?

If that was the case, Batyrov felt a duty to help them join the rest of the Commune.

Near-unanimously, the crew of the Eminent named Batyrov the leader of the negotiating party for these reasons. Two other men, Shapur and Albescu, were to go with him. They were also students, who had participated in the same uprising as Batyrov, though the latter did not personally know them. However, they could at least get along together because of their similar origins.

Soon the anarchists neared the rocky pass through the middle of Khaybar.

Batyrov felt absolutely tiny when faced with the massive landform. An enormous cleave in the earth with stone rising higher than the eye could see on either side of it. They were 1500 meters deep and Khaybar’s mountainous peaks rose over a thousand meters on either side of them. Between the two halves was the pass, a five- or six-hundred-meter gap with flat, rocky faces on either side. Nowhere in Khaybar was the water murkier than it was around the pass, rusty-red with biomass from dead Leviathans. Whether they had fallen from above or been killed by the people of Khaybar, Batyrov did not know. He assumed both could be true, explaining the volume of red.

There was a messy acoustic message from Khaybar that led to another messy laser call.

As-salamu alaykum. It’s me again.” Batyrov could tell it was Majida, though she failed to introduce herself. She sounded almost chipper. Maybe it was the connection noise. “I am waiting for you in the caves. We have a multi-service dock at depth 1800. Your ship should just about be able to handle it. Inshallah we will meet soon and you will not explode due to the pressure.”

The Eminent was a frigate, an old Imperial Marder class that had defected in the uprisings. They had seen other relatively Frigate-size ships floating around the mountain in varying degrees of readiness, and had the seen the wrecks of many other Frigate-size ships, so more than likely, it was true that the Khaybarians had Frigate docks. That they were set into the rock was not terribly surprising as there were stations and arcologies grafted onto landforms all over the Empire.

Those docks and ships did lead Batyrov to reconsider what the Pirates were capable of.

Descending down to the seafloor at the base of the pass, the Bosporans found a hatch opening directly beneath them. There was no movement of water, as the hatch was already flooded. A massive tunnel extended below the surface aperture. They followed the rocky passage under the mountain and up into an absurdly massive moonpool. A small flotilla was housed and serviced in the rocky depths of this flooded passage. Batyrov was unsure of how they would get out, however, because ships did not have upper hatches. Moonpools had fallen quite out of use by the Empire.

Again, the Khaybarian’s ingenuity surprised them.

A pair of labor divers dropped down from above and attached a chute to their frigate.

Docking clamps were also safely anchored by the Khaybarian workers.

The Bosporans were almost afraid of opening their ship up to the chutes to disembark Batyrov and his men. Batyrov trusted the Khaybarians, and when he had the airlock to the chute opened, he found a completely pressurized, straightforward walk out to a familiar style of metal bulkhead door. On their side, the Khaybarians opened the door and met him without incident.

Finally, Batyrov got to meet with his counterparts after all this time.

There was a figure in a black hood at the center of a small party of unarmed folk. Everyone but that central figure instead wore dusty grey or beige hoods and synthetic coats and pants. They wore featureless, dusty white masks with subtle eyeholes. All of their hoods had spaces for their cat-like ears. Either they all made that style choice together or they were all Shimii as Batyrov had assumed.

That central hooded figure stepped forward to greet the party from Bosporus.

“I did not prepare a big welcoming speech. Do you have one?”

“I’m afraid not. Let’s just introduce ourselves.” Batyrov said, smiling at her.

She laughed in response. “As you wish!”

Batyrov got to see the leader of the Khaybarian Pirates. She pulled down her hood.

“Majida al-Khaybari. Warlord of the ummah of Jabal Khaybar.”

“I am Silas Batyrov. I represent the interests of the people of Bosporus.”

“Hah! Well, I suppose I am not one of them by your definition.”

They briefly shook hands. She had a very strong grip.

She was a Shimii, without a doubt. Her ears and tail proved this immediately.

For a brutal “Pirate Queen” she had an outward appearance gentler and more collected than Batyrov expected. Her hair was a captivating color, like a dusty silver, that fell in messy waves cut just over the shoulder. She had an interesting pale skin complexion, like an off-brown grey, that was uncommon to her ethnicity. Her eyes were a very dark color. Her face seemed untroubled by the elements, with a gentle nose and soft lips and cheekbones. She was smiling softly at the anarchists.

Her figure was quite lithe and lean, not necessarily skinny, but neither too tall nor too broad. Her form of dress was humble. Beneath her synthetic hood she wore a weathered green coat and pants with military-style boots. Her garments looked simply made and very little decorated. Her only piece of jewelry or filigree was a necklace she wore, which had the Khaybarians symbol. That half-moon cut through by three claw marks. It had been cast in armor steel, rough and unpolished.

Some of her body’s physical traits hinted at a complicated ancestry.

One of her ears was like any other Shimii’s, cat-like, erect at the top of her head and covered in fur the color of her human head hair. However, her other ear was strange. It was twisted the wrong way — if it had an earhole somewhere, then it was pointing back, and there was no fur or earhole fluff that Batyrov could see on it. The cartilage on that “ear” was blue-ish gray and smooth.

Some Shimii had “wonky” ears, but Majida looked like she had a fin in place of one.

Her tail was also a bit odd. It split at the end into two fluffy tips.

“Wondering about this?” She raised a hand and flicked her finger at her one strange ear.

Batyrov nodded. “I have been trying to place it.”

Majida grinned. It was a mocking grin, that belied maybe a little bit of her malice.

“Let us just say I’ve got a complicated history. I’m special, you know?” Majida said.

Batyrov hardly knew how to reply to such an enigmatic and strange declaration.

“Are you a Pelagis?” He asked, perhaps insensitively.

“I’m a Shimii. Can you introduce me to the rest of your ‘Bosporan’ friends?”

Her voice turned a bit brusque as she asserted her ethnicity.

Batyrov was sure she must have been a Pelagis, made upon a base of Shimii genetics.

He would not push her on that subject. It was unimportant for any of their purposes.

“My comrades here are Basan Shapur and Antoine Albescu.”

Shapur and Albescu stood behind Batyrov, staring down the Shimii standing with Majida.

Batyrov knew that nobody was armed, but Majida had them outnumbered a dozen to three.

Majida herself seemed to notice a bit of tension, and smiled affably.

“I’ll take the lead from here. All of you go find something productive to do.”

The plain masks in the dusty coats stared at one another briefly and quietly.

Following Majida’s orders, they dispersed as individuals, going different directions.

Once they were gone, the Warlord ushered her guests past the bulkhead door.

No security checks, no pat-downs or metal detectors.

Majida did not seem to distrust them at all.

“There are a lot of passages, so stay close to me. We will pay a visit to mawla Asma Al-Shahouh. She is a community leader and a precious elder to us. Nobody here will ever cooperate with you unless you first pay your respects to mawla Al-Shahouh. After you have introduced yourselves, we can discuss business with her as a witness, in the traditional way.”

Majida talked very confidently. It felt almost as if she had done this before, or perhaps had planned to do so, and thought about what she would do in such a situation. Batyrov wondered if there were other peoples who had agreements with the Khaybarians and the Bosporans simply did not know for lack of peaceful communication, or attempts at communication. Nevertheless, he did not ask Majida for any exceptions or anything untoward. Feeling lucky that he had come this far and then found an intelligent and forthright woman to speak to, he simply acquiesced to her agenda.

Shapur and Albescu looked reticent, but they ultimately followed after Batyrov.

He did not know much about them, but it was fine as long as they all cooperated.

Beyond the bulkhead that sealed behind them, the cavern passage was partially steel and partially hewn into the rock. Batyrov saw pipes and devices on the walls that he assumed were used to equalize the pressure and provide oxygen and air circulation. There were lights on the walls and ceiling that provided dim fields of illumination, but the lighting at the bulkhead was practically a spotlight compared to the lights in the rest of the passage. It made the place even more cavernous.

At the end of the passage, the four of them got on an elevator. All of the buttons on the physical controls had very faded characters, but numbers had been scratched into the metal above each so that they could be read and used. Majida did not look as she struck two of the buttons.

“How should I address you?” Batyrov asked.

“Majida is fine. By etiquette, you should not be so familiar with a woman, but I’m special.”

“And the person you are taking us to meet. Her name is Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh?”

Mawla is her title. It’s a word in our language, Al Fus-ha. Her name is Asma Al-Shahouh.”

“Your language, it is like High Imbrian, correct? It’s known, but not much is spoken.”

“You possess more of High Imbrian than we have Al Fus-ha. But you are mostly correct.”

Batyrov nodded. High Imbrian was a set of words, place names and titles that the Empire had recorded from the surface world, after the lost times. Military terms like blitzkrieg and the formal name of the Empire, the Reich. And the way the Volkisch called themselves was a word of High Imbrian.It was possible to carry out speech in High Imbrian, if you knew the grammar and the words, but it was very rare. If there was even less left of Al Fus-ha, it was a dead tongue.

Talking with Majida fascinated him as a scholar, but hers seemed a sad tale to tell.

He felt so ashamed that the Imbrians had done so much damage to the Shimii.

Majida laughed to herself as if she knew what he was thinking.

“You can’t take all the credit for our condition, you know. Let me tell you a story I was told: a thousand years ago, there was a holy man, the Mahdi, who led the Shimii to the Ocean. He was sent to us with ominous knowledge from Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala.” Majida followed with a quick recitation Batyrov didn’t understand. “Why was he sent? Because the people of the surface hated us, and when they conspired to escape the Calamity, they wanted us all to die on the surface. Can you imagine such a thing? That the entire world wanted us to be annihilated?”

Though she had an amused expression, Majida was talking about dire things indeed.

“I’m sorry, I was not aware.” Batyrov said. His voice trembled.

He was not aware of much of the Shimii’s culture. Only of its ultimate destruction.

A part of him wondered how far outside of Khaybar such stories had ever spread.

He could almost believe this mountain was the original site of that mythical descent.

It was so ancient-feeling, and so hidden away. Just like these people were.

“Just think about it; the calamity of the surface destroyed all our holy sites and homes.” Majida said, “and beneath the Ocean we faced more hardship and hate, and we faced the time of great Ignorance with everyone else beneath the Ocean.” Did she mean the Age of Strife? She continued. “But compared to the ancient people leaving us to die on the surface, the Imbrians’ hatred of us is small and pathetic. Just like you folk.”

Majida elbowed Batyrov gently in the flank, laughing as she made that declaration.

Shapur and Albescu looked like they wanted to sink through the earth and disappear.

It was a long elevator ride. Maybe the tunnels were big, or the elevator was old and slow.

Thankfully, there wasn’t much silence. Their Shimii hostess was always talking.

“Tell me more about you!” Majida said. “You’re a nerd, Batyrov. How about these two?”

She turned and pointed at Albescu. He grunted a bit as if he didn’t really know what to say.

“I’m also a nerd, technically.” He finally said. “I’m more of a soldier now, I guess.”

“You all need to work on your people skills to do this diplomacy thing.” Majida laughed.

“We were kind of drafted into it.” Shapur said. He tried to smile and shrug, playing it off.

“I guess someone’s always calling the shots for everyone no matter where you go.”

“Well, we’re anarchists, so no, actually.” Albescu said. “But it was like peer pressure.”

Majida’s cat-like ear noticeably perked up. Her fin-like ear twitched briefly.

“Anarchists, right! I’d heard that something big had gone down in Bosporus.”

“You get news from the outside?” Batyrov asked. She had blurted out something new.

Majida was unbothered. She did not seem to see it as changing her position whatsoever.

“I’ve got my ways, but I’d still love to hear from your perspective what happened.”

“Of course. I keep practicing how to tell this story in the future. So: a few weeks ago, a group of militants sank a station in the Palatinate. Do you know where that is?” Batyrov asked.

“Of course, I do.” Majida replied.

She did not sound angry at him, but Batyrov still felt he was making verbal missteps.

In his estimation, Majida seemed like a very bright woman.

He had not known what to expect. Maybe someone more desperate, more brutish.

Someone quoting a lot of religious passages at him?

He had to keep revising his impression of her with every word she said.

“After that station was destroyed, a bunch of us just said ‘enough was enough’. We wanted to do something about it. At first, we just wanted to gather a group of students and walk out, and protest and give some visibility to how bad all this– all this stuff was, you know?” Batyrov said.

“You can say ‘shit’. I’m not your mother or sister.” Majida said.

Albescu and Shapur cracked up a little.

“Right.” Batyrov replied, turning a little red. “So, anyway, what ended up happening was all of the students walked out. A bunch of professors joined us. Then the police came out. And it got heated, really quickly. We were just students, but when people saw us getting gassed and hit, more people started joining. Regular people. Even some Navy guys came in, they threw out their uniforms. Eventually we had enough of being hit. We’ve got huge numbers of people, pissed as hell. So, then we start fighting.”

Majida whistled. “I can’t imagine you fighting, Batyrov.”

“I was arrested, like, Day 1.” Batyrov laughed. “So, this is all kinda second-hand.”

He started fidgeting with his hair. Majida looked at him with a little smile.

“So then, who is calling the shots now? The Duke fled the state, didn’t he?” She asked.

“Well, nobody is ‘calling the shots’ really.” Batyrov said.

Majida smiled again. “Someone is always calling the shots.”

“I know this might sound corny, but we collectively decided to organize on the principle of free association. We form groups, because we all want to, and those groups decide together what they want to do, what problems they want to tackle, who they can talk to for resources so they can get together and do the work.”

“I see. You did all this complicated stuff just to come talk to me? I’m flattered.”

Her expression seemed to shift from sympathy to mockery very quickly.

“Well, let me ask you this, are you the boss around here?” Batyrov said.

“Of some things. Like dealing with you, for example.” Majida replied.

“Is Mawla Al-Shahouh the boss, then?”

He was trying to needle her in the same way she was making fun of their anarchism.

It did not work too well.

“Wow! You’re so respectful, already using her title. She’s the boss of some things.”

Finally, the elevator stopped, and the doors opened in front of them.

“Ah. Follow me! And don’t stare too much. You’ll scare the kittens.”

They exited out onto an absolutely massive space that was full of people.

Rock walls and metal blended together in fascinating, almost organic ways.

There were devices regulating air and pressure, and light fixtures on the rock walls or suspended on steel wires, but the habitat was still cavernous. Batyrov remembered that feeling of smallness in the Khaybar Pass, with the rock walls rising on either flank. The interior of Khaybar Mountain was the same way. Up above there was only darkness as the ceiling was some imperceivably infinite height overhead. There were maybe about a hundred meters of width of dimly lit clearance between the walls, and this road was taken up by people. Catwalks and ladders and elevators in places connected the various rooms set inside and into the walls around them.

Batyrov compared it to a hive, and all the Shimii ran around like cat-eared bees within it.

The Khaybarians appeared to have colonized the rock at least a dozen stories high with all manner of workshops, homes big and small, and what seemed like meeting places on the different floor levels. They walked past a recessed stone hollow in the wall where synthetic mats had been laid down and people sat, listening to what sounded like stories or prayers that were being sang.

“Weigh with justice, and do not give short measure.” Majida said aloud to herself.

There were hundreds, maybe thousands of people.

Definitely thousands; Batyrov started counting and recounting, resetting his expectations as he walked. There were so many people, so many different people. Women and children, older men and strong-looking boys, with different colors of eyes and patterns on their hair, with darker and lighter skin. Batyrov had hardly seen a place that was so colorful. Everyone dressed humbly in coats, pants, long skirts. All kinds of ears shaking and tails wagging. Most people wore earth tones with simple but lovely patterns.

As they walked, a group of children who had been playing started sneaking behind them.

They watched with trepidation, from behind and around objects, their little tails wagging.

Majida glanced at them briefly over her shoulder, and the kittens hid playfully from her.

She smiled, and continued walking.

Batyrov supposed Majida played with these children in other contexts.

“We’ll be at the mawla’s home shortly. Until then, be careful not to offend anyone.”

“Yes, of course.” Batyrov said.

There were a few of Majida’s white-coated, masked retinue walking about. Some patrolled idly around the various levels and structures, waving at Majida when she passed. Others were engaged in some kind of community work. They were distributing containers to people. Some were big barrels. Clean water perhaps? Others gave out what seemed from afar like foodstuffs.

“We ration everything. We distribute goods based on need.” Majida explained.

“So, you have industry? What tools do you have? What can you make?” Batyrov said.

“Look over there.”

Majida pointed to a spot farther ahead where there was a section of wall cleared quite deep to make room for a massive workshop. As their party got closer, Batyrov saw that there were a dozen Shimii engaged in work on nothing less than an actual Heavy Diver suit. It was a custom build, nothing like a Volker or any other model he had seen. The craftsmanship was incredible.

Every surface was smoothed out, angled properly. It was painted red, and the technology of this suit was striking compared to the conditions around it. Batyrov was looking at it from the back, so he could see swept shoulders and rear armor that flared out, almost winged. There were six hydro-jets, three a piece in two pod packs. From the positions, they appeared to be able to turn horizontally. It was a curious setup that struck him as a little dangerous, but innovative.

On a rack near the Diver’s makeshift gantry, there were several weapons. Batyrov thought he recognized them. Staring at them long enough, he could finally tell they were gas guns and ship cannons, stripped from wrecks and refurbished. The Khaybarians used ship guns and materials to build their own weapons and systems. That Diver was probably made with salvaged ship metal too. He realized a lot of this cavern may have been upgraded with ship parts and systems.

Those Shimii were welding ship metal and salvaged tech, with tools taken from ships.

“You can build Divers.” Batyrov said. He was taken aback by this revelation. Shapur and Albescu both stared, silently, in awe at the work they were seeing. Batyrov realized if they could work with the Khaybarians, they could have a homegrown weapons industry. All they needed to do was supply the Khaybarians with real materials and tools, and they could build Bosporan weapons! And maybe they could even build ships. They had docks, they had space to work in.

He was imagining an entire Shimii manufacturing sector. Turning out for the commune, overnight. It would be game-changing for the anarchists. Bosporus did not have a Rhineanmetalle Group or a Rescholdt-Kolt Heavy Industries. They had mining and processing but not as much manufacturing muscle. Using Majida’s people, the Commune might be able to build anything.

Majida gave him a strange look.

Her gaze was frighteningly deep, piercing. It was like she was reading his mind.

“We make anything we need with anything we can get. Let’s keep walking.”

She turned from the workshop and led the men onward. Batyrov looked back one last time.

He saw multiple little tails sticking out from beside the Diver’s foot. He smiled.

This was a strangely beautiful place. He felt like he wanted to help these people. They seemed like good people, skilled people. People who had been forced into this life by misfortune and violence. None of them needed to live in such backwards conditions. As bewildered as he was when they first made contact, he felt positive about Khaybar. This was not a pirate’s den.

People lived in Khaybar. They had families and children.

After walking for what felt like half an hour, they reached the other end of the habitat.

There was rock wall and what looked like a cargo elevator. It was broader and larger than the rest. There were some crates loaded on it but nobody seemed to be looking after them, so Batyrov did not linger on that detail. Across from the elevator there was a room set into the rock with a metal door. It looked like a recycled bulkhead door, but there were no locking mechanisms and the metal backing was thinned out. Majida led them to this door and casually pushed it open.

Her face lit up as she entered the domicile, and she put a hand over her chest.

She moved to keep the three Bosporan men behind her as she stood on the floor mat.

Salam, Khala Asma.” Majida greeted. “Oh! I should have known Raaya would be here.”

The Mawla’s abode was cozy. There was a bed, clearly stripped from a ship cabin, there was a pot and a kettle on an electric cooktop hooked up to an agarthic battery. That battery was probably taken from a diver or a shuttle and the cooktop looked like the ones on imperial messes. There was a climate control unit, naked on the wall, the heating element glowing behind a grate. There was a locker up against one wall, reminiscent of those on Imperial ships, used as a cupboard and pantry. A chest and a small table near the bed played host to an LCD writing tablet and pen.

By Bosporan standards it was a tiny, humble home, but it felt comfortable enough.

Inside the room there were two people. On the bed, resting up against a gel pillow, and covered in a warm blanket, was an older Shimii woman with striking green eyes and sandy-brown skin, her hair partly graying. She gave their party a warm, radiant smile. Her dress was just a bit more colorful, a green robe with yellow patterns that looked like squares on a diagonal grid.

Next to the pot, in which some kind of stew was boiling, stood a younger woman, maybe Majida’s age. She looked enough like the mawla that Batyrov assumed they must have been mother and daughter. She was a pretty girl, a bit skinny, with her hair tied in a functional ponytail and wearing a cheerful expression. Like Mawla Al-Shahouh she had sandy-brown skin and hair, and those same green eyes. Her own robes were pretty simple, but she had a blue sash that she wore tightly.

When she saw Majida, Raaya approached her with an open, happy demeanor.

In a strange but caring gesture, the two touched noses briefly, both smiling warmly.

Then Raaya spotted the Bosporan party and grew concerned.

“Majida, who are these men with you? There are so many.” Raaya asked.

“They’re here on business. Don’t worry. They are proper boys.” Majida said.

“You should not have come unescorted.” Raaya said. She put her hands on her hips.

“Bah, I’m more of a man than any of them anyway. I’m special. Forget all that.”

Majida was so casually conceited, the Bosporans felt a bit embarrassed by her.

“It’s still improper. And now you’re insulting them! What a terrible host!”

“Don’t give Majida too much grief, Raaya. Let everyone in, and serve the food.”

From behind them, the mawla, Asma, spoke in a kind but firm tone of voice.

Raaya nodded her head obediently, and returned to the pot with one last look at Majida.

Ahlan wa sahlan, Majida, guests.” Asma said.

Majida ushered the Bosporans into the abode at that point. Batyrov moved to bow.

“Don’t do that.”

He felt Majida’s hand briefly push his chin back up.

“Don’t bow to anyone here. We don’t do that. The Mawla welcomed you, so be honored.”

“We appreciate your hospitality. I wish I was able to properly pay respects in your custom.”

Where he could prostrate himself physically, Batyrov did verbally.

He really felt privileged. It was like entering an entirely different world. It was surreal.

“The rest of us don’t use as much Al Fus-ha as her.” Majida said. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, it is only that way despite my best efforts to teach you.” Asma said.

She laughed, while Majida’s head sank a little. Her fin-like ear twitched with annoyance.

Raaya had a laugh at Majida’s expense.

Everyone then sat down on mats on the floor with their legs crossed.

Once the soup was ready, Raaya went around to everyone with their share.

Everyone was given one piece of flatbread from the Mawla’s cupboard, and a small cup of a steaming hot, thick soup of greens and lentils. Raaya spooned in the soup first, and then scooped up a round, soft item from the pot onto each cup, making sure everyone had a bite of this. It could have been a soy or yeast cake, or maybe it was really meat. The delegation did not know, but they watched Majida break up the little protein cake into the soup, and dip her bread, and she began to eat it like this. The delegates imitated her.

Despite its humble appearance, the meal was quite salty and savory, though the thick, almost viscous consistency of the soup took some getting used to. It was hearty and earthy. Batyrov quite liked it.

Along with the soup, Raaya served them a very watery tea from the kettle next to the pot.

After serving the tea, she brought a vessel down from the cupboard, and finally sat herself.

“Forgive us the small portions. Our meals are pretty lean. Have some milk.”

Majida said this as she poured just a bit of what seemed like milk from Raaya’s vessel into her tea. It was clearly not 100% dairy milk, as the Imperial-fed delegation were used to, and they learned this when they tried it. Rather, this was more like what they knew as “Union milk:” fortified with a small amount of dairy, with added sugar for taste, but mainly soy or nut milk.

All of this suggested to Batyrov that there was basic agriculture and food manufacture in Khaybar.

Bismillahi wa barakatillah.”

Asma seemed to offer a little prayer before she began to eat herself.

“Ah crap.” Majida said. “I just dug right in. Sorry.”

The Bosporans stopped eating suddenly, staring at Majida, wondering if they offended too.

“There is a prayer for such an occasion. Do you recall it?” Asma said to Majida.

“I–”

“I shall offer a prayer for your soul then.” Asma said mischievously.

Majida frowned. “Quit teasing me. I’ll make up for it in evening prayer.”

“Of course, it is known to Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, that you are trying your best.”

“Of course.” Majida replied.

“However, it is laudable to be dissatisfied with one’s efforts, and to continuously improve.”

Raaya giggled. Majida seemed fully put down by the lecture.

The Mawla looked quite happy despite this.

Asma turned to the Bosporans with a smile. “All of you can eat. Don’t worry about us.”

And so, the Bosporans ate.

Asma only had one verbal exchange with them during the meal.

“You came from Bosporus, is that right?” She asked.

“That’s right. I come from Antioch originally.” Batyrov said.

“We call that place Medina, Khala Asma.” Majida interjected.

“Ah, I see. Tell me then, how is the masjid there? Is it well tended to?”

Batyrov blinked. “I’m sorry, I don’t know what you mean.”

“Hmm. Well, don’t worry about it then.”

Asma covered her mouth, coughing a little before returning to her food.

She did not address the Bosporans again while they ate.

After the meal, Raaya picked up all the plastic vessels they had eaten off of.

“I’m taking these out to wash. Good luck with everything, Majida. I will return with Mother’s medicine soon. Inshallah you will be out of here by then. Mother’s health cannot wait.”

 Majida waved at Raaya with a bored expression as the young woman departed.

“She’s a beauty, but she has such a nagging attitude.” Majida shrugged.

“Whom did she get that from, I wonder?” Asma said, looking satisfied with herself.

While eating, their seating positions were arranged around Asma’s bed.

However, now Majida turned her back to Asma and faced all of them directly.

“Aside from upholding a custom of basic hospitality, I hope to impress upon you how it is that my people live.” Majida said. “All of us live precisely like this. We must share everything and divide it into small amounts so everybody can eat pure and healthy food. I hope you will understand then, as we negotiate, that my people live in precarity and we have need of many things here.”

“I understand.” Batyrov said.

Majida eyed Shapur and Albescu. “Do they?”

“I mean– yes, of course.”

Albescu and Shapur nodded along with Batyrov.

“Trust is important in business. So, for now, I trust all of you.” Majida said.

All of the Bosporans remained seated and faced Majida. Asma remained in her bed.

Khala Asma, serve as our witness.”

“I will witness, but not interrupt.” Asma replied. “You will be responsible, Majida.”

“Good. It’s easier that way.”

Majida turned from Asma back to the Bosporans.

“Up until a few days ago, I was the one sinking your ships. Me and my crew.”

She cracked a little grin at them. Albescu and Shapur narrowed their eyes at her.

“Does it bother you? Look around yourselves. My people are vulnerable. Now you know about Khaybar’s fearsome reputation. You experienced it first-hand. All of you call me a ‘Pirate’ but I did not style myself this. I protect my people from those who come to steal from us. And I steal from those who stole our homes, broke up our communities and erased our names and words.”

Majida’s voice grew impassioned.

Albescu and Shapur started looking for Batyrov to reply.

Batyrov could not really argue against her logic.

They had lost comrades to her piracy. However, her distrust made perfect sense to him.

“With all due respect, we did not antagonize you. It was the Empire that did you wrong. All this time, people like us have been fighting the Empire too. We never persecuted the Shimii.”

That was the best argument Batyrov could come up with.

“A few months ago, when an Imperial Marder-class navigated these waters, I knew that it was Imperial and I attacked it.” Majida said. “It made no attempt to communicate its intentions, its weapons were primed at all times. A week ago, an Imperial Marder-class Frigate appears again. And then another. Am I supposed to think ‘oh, this Imperial Marder-class Frigate is full of ethical, freedom-loving anarchists who mean no harm’? Unfortunately, my vision is not so perfect as that.”

“Do you attack every ship that tries to go through the pass?” Batyrov asked.

“Look around you. I’ve seen you eyeing our gear. You know the answer to that!”

Batyrov did understand. Having been called out like that, he put together the final piece.

The Khaybarians attacked every warship that tried to go through the pass.

Using ship computers, they possessed algorithmic detection of specific types.

“You sink warships. That’s how you choose who to kill and who to extort?” Batyrov asked.

“It’s a solid starting point. Wouldn’t you agree?”

“I suppose so. Say that I accept and understand your motivations. Can we have a truce?”

“Let me answer your question with a question.” Majida said. “Are you the boss, Batyrov?”

Batyrov blinked. “I told you there is no boss, Majida.”

Majida sighed openly. Behind her, Asma could be seen to sink back into her pillow.

“Batyrov, how do I know that we can negotiate? How do I know you will keep your word? When I speak to one group of you, how do I know another group won’t have a difference of opinion? When I deal with the capitalists, at least I know they only want money. And if I deal with communists, I would know that they follow their dictator and everything that she says. Top-down structures. With you guys, I have no idea.”

“Capitalists and communists, huh? Interesting folks you’ve talked to, then.”

“Surprised I called them that? I’ve always known what an ‘anarchist’ is too, you know.”

 Batyrov felt a sting of anxiety in his heart. He felt like he was failing to get through to her.

Worse, she was succeeding in getting a rise out of him too. He was arguing with her.

Shapur and Albescu looked like they were getting downright angry at Majida.

Majida in turn crossed her arms and gave the Bosporans an incisive glare.

“I’m not stupid. I’ve read your books. It is your mistake thinking I don’t understand you.”

Batyrov tried to calm down the rising tensions. He chose to be completely honest.

“Majida, forget what you have read about us. We’re not picture-perfect reflections of our books. You’re right. I’m not an authority to Bosporus. But neither are the merchants that you stick up, or the communist spies you might’ve talked to. Let’s set a modest goal for this meeting. No deals: I will take your concerns to our Popular Assembly. Let’s just normalize relationships.”

“And then your Assembly will send someone who can actually negotiate?”

“Yes. If that will make you feel more confident. I will convey that message back to them.”

“Modest indeed. But you’re right. I do feel that is something you can actually do.”

Majida leaned back, propping herself up with her hands and staring at the ceiling.

“Tell me, Batyrov, what is it that you hope to get out of this? Why did you come here?”

Batyrov tried to smile and keep positive. Things seemed to be moving in a good direction.

“Khaybar Mountain lies between many important borders. I’m sure you know that more than anyone, Majida. If we could cross safely, we would be able to easily go to the Union or to Campos Mountain to look for supplies, or even troops. We’re practically at war with the whole Empire now. Erich von Fueller will come for us soon. We just want safe passage. That’s all.”

Majida sat back up, with her legs crossed and her hands on her knees.

“That’s all?” She asked.

“That’s all.”

In the back, Asma seemed to watch contentedly, offering no judgment, not even in her facial expressions. She had no reactions when Majida would raise her voice or when Batyrov would argue. Albescu and Shapur’s body language conveyed their displeasure with the situation, but Asma did not seem troubled by them at all. Batyrov wondered what kind of relationship there was between them. Like Majida, he was thinking about who the boss was in this encounter.

“Batyrov, what if I told you I wanted to join the Bosporan Commune?”

Batyrov nearly jumped with surprise when he heard those words. During the riots, a cop had punched him in the sternum. He had never felt something like it. It sent him reeling. With those words, those insane, unexpected words, Majida struck him just as hard as that cop had. He could hardly recover. For a moment he was just staring at her as if she had said nothing at all.

“The Commune is a free association of individual lands, correct?” Majida said.

“Yes.” Batyrov replied. He slowly collected himself again. “Yes, it is; every station has autonomy over its own affairs. They set their own rules, and how they all wish to abide by them. And they come to agreements between themselves as they want. We are all joined under the Assembly in Antioch, so we can cooperate together as a nation. But yes, all the ‘lands’ are free.”

“How is representation in this Assembly apportioned?”

Batyrov blinked. He had not been ready for this. “I believe it is by population.”

“Khaybar has a much larger population than many stations.” Majida asserted.

“Then you would have more Assembly members. I think that is how it is.”

“I see. You’re not an expert. Well, that’s fine. We can talk about it.”

Majida gave them perhaps the meanest, nastiest smile she had the whole day.

“We will join the Bosporan Commune as a freely associating anarchist station, if you will listen to my conditions, which I want you to bring before your Assembly. Will you hear them?”

“Of course.” Batyrov said.

This was playing out better than he could have ever hoped.

Not just free passage, but a new, allied community. It could turn the entire war around.

“First, and most importantly, I would like your support for a Shimii ‘right of return’.”

Batyrov blinked hard. He was confused by the term. He felt it like another verbal gut punch.

“I’m not sure what you mean. That’s a bit of a loaded phrase.” Batyrov said.

Majida unpacked it. “I want all Shimii to have Bosporan citizenship, which they can claim, at Khaybar, Antioch, or any station which was once their home. I want Bosporus to be a home again to the Shimii, who were expulsed from here in a brutal, unjust fashion. Is that acceptable?”

“I’m not sure. We would have to work on the logistics of that. Stations could choose not to harbor Shimii like that, you know? They might not have space for them. It really depends, Majida.”

Batyrov felt immediately uncomfortable.

It was not an unreasonable demand. However, it was a very complicated one to meet.

“Well, I don’t have space here and I still house people. What would your Assembly say?”

“In my experience, it will be very difficult to get consensus on it.” Batyrov said.

“Ah, difficult to get consensus? Well, alright.”

Majida looked more amused than anything.

“Batyrov, this is pointless.”

Albescu spoke up.

“She’s not being serious about this. She’s mocking us, Batyrov.”

Shapur agreed with him as well.

Batyrov felt completely cornered. Asma and Majida had no reaction to these accusations.

“Let’s not jump to conclusions. Majida, tell us your other concerns.”

Their host crossed her arms and seemed to deliberately stew in silence for a moment.

“I want Bosporus to accept Tawhid. One divinity.” Majida finally said. Albescu and Shapur wanted to interrupt but Batyrov stopped them. “I want Bosporus to acknowledge that in the past its lands sang with the prayers of the Shimii. I want acknowledgement of the one God. Our word for God, is Allah, and we honor God, by saying subhanahu wa ta’ala, ‘praised and Exalted.’”

“This is ridiculous.” Albescu said. “We’re not going to legislate anyone’s religion!”

“It’s more than just religion. It’s the culture of this land before you stole it.”

Majida spoke with an assuredness that was frightening. Batyrov was shaken up.

Their negotiation was completely upended. Maybe Shapur and Albescu were right.

Perhaps she had never taken them seriously. Maybe this is what she wanted all along.

“We would just as soon give everything up to the Solceans!” Shapur butted in.

“You two, calm down.” Batyrov pleaded. “Let me speak with her, okay?”

“I have one final demand. If you can’t even agree to hear it, we have no deal.”

“Speak, Majida. I’m sorry about all of this. But I really did come to listen to you. And even if we disagree with your ideas, I promise I will bring them up to the Assembly.” Batyrov said.

This was his final plea for an understanding.

Majida was not moved in the slightest.

“Thirty years ago, a wave of hatred toward the ummah swept through the Empire. You anarchists are of course very enlightened and aware of our history. I ask you to address the sins of your forebears. We will join forces with you if the Bosporan Commune can guarantee ¾ Shimii representation in your Assembly. The remaining ¼ can be made up of the Volgans, Loup, Easterners and North Bosporans who benefited from our mass persecution and expulsion.”

Albescu stood up from the floor and tried to tower over the sitting Majida.

“You can’t be serious. What you’re asking is for racial mob rule by the Shimii!”

Majida looked up at him, smiling. Unconcerned whatsoever by his aggression.

“If I asked for half, then? Guaranteed, one half representation for the Shimii.”

Shapur did not stand like Albescu had, but he gestured aggressively with his hands.

“You are ridiculous, Majida al-Khaybari! You are asking us to allow your people to terrorize us and dismantle the world we are trying to build. What kind of people’s rule would guarantee such a thing as this? Shimii taking over our stations? Shimii religion taking over our culture? It is unconscionable to think that even our elected government must then be half Shimii!”

In return, Majida threw him a mocking smile, her eyes narrow, her teeth showing.

“You ask what kind of people’s rule would guarantee us representation?” she said. “My answer is, only the rule of a just people, who truly wish to make amends for their history.”

For the first time in the conversation Majida stood up, right in front of Albescu.

She was not as tall as Albescu, but she looked him in the eyes fearlessly.

“Listen: I don’t care about your free associations, I don’t care about your agreements, I don’t care about your democracy. Nobody here cares about democracy. What we want is justice! I’m not here to participate in your little social theater. I want us out of this rock and back in Medina, back in the place you call ‘Antioch’. And I want all of our other communities returned to us.”

Click.

Albescu suddenly drew a revolver pistol and aimed right between Majida’s eyes.

He pulled back the hammer quickly. It was loaded.

Batyrov did not where he had put such a thing. He did not know how he had brought it.

None of the Shimii ever searched him, or any of their party.

But Batyrov had been sure they had no weapons. Their party came to the Shimii in peace!

“Albescu, what are you doing?” Batyrov cried out. “Stop this right now! This is insane!”

She is insane. She’s killed our comrades before. And she’s going to do so again.”

Majida grabbed hold of the barrel and pressed it against her forehead more tightly.

“Come on then. Shoot me. I told you I’m more of a man than all of you and I meant it.”

Her eyes looked frenzied, crazed. Batyrov thought he saw an eerie glow in them.

Even Albescu was surprised. It was a miracle that he had not pressed the trigger right then.

“I’m warning you, you bitch!” Albescu shouted. “I’m taking you with us to our ship. You’ll be a hostage so we can get out of here. And then we’re going to make you pay for your evil.”

There was no turning this back around. Batyrov’s heart sank. He had no idea what to do.

  “Yisim albadan.”

Asma said something, in exasperation, maybe some kind of curse. She coughed after.

“Albescu, please.” Batyrov pleaded.

Albescu did not even look at him. He was fixated only on Majida.

“Batyrov. I volunteered because I wanted to see the ‘Pirate Queen’ who terrorized this place, who killed our comrades, and killed thousands of other people. I wanted to see this brutal demon with my own eyes and see what her answer was. I came on this expedition ready to fight. Anyone who doesn’t join us is on the side of the fascists. Anyone who kills our men is on the side of the fascists. This woman is nothing but a fascist, Batyrov. I was willing to let you talk. I have sympathy for this village. But she never intended to cooperate with us. She drew us in here to try to scare and mock us. But if we get rid of her, Khaybar won’t threaten anyone again.”

“Bosporan, everyone here in a mask is a fighter who will take my place.” Majida said.

“Then we’ll kill all your masks!” Albescu shouted at her. “We’ll kill all of you!”

He was really starting to lose control. Batyrov could not hope to walk this back.

“Feeling like a big man? Pull that trigger and see what happens.”

Majida was still goading him. Was she really not afraid? Or was she actually insane?

From behind them, Asma spoke up again. Her voice was unbothered: firm, but kind.

“Value your life more, Majida. Please.”

“You shut up too!” Albescu shouted at her. Asma did not even flinch. She was unshaken.

Majida narrowed her eyes.

“Don’t you dare disrespect her, you libertarian clown.”

“Why are you all shouting? What is going on?”

A worried Raaya suddenly reentered the room in the height of this tension.

To Batyrov’s horror, Shapur stood and drew a revolver on her, joining Albescu.

“Shapur! That’s just a civilian!”

“I’m sorry, Batyrov. You are too naïve.”

An invisible line had been crossed at that point. Shapur did not know what he had done.

“Don’t point that thing at her. Put it down. Right now.”

When Majida spoke, her voice moved through the room with a sudden, incredible weight. Like a shockwave that transferred through their skin and shook their guts. Batyrov thought he saw her eyes glowing red. She let go of Albescu’s gun barrel, backing off from her provocation, but Albescu was not emboldened. He stared at her in terror, like he really had a demon at gunpoint.

On the bed, Asma put a hand to her chest and closed her eyes.

She was mumbling something. Perhaps a prayer.

Shapur suddenly put an arm around Raaya, taking her as a hostage.

He put the gun to her temple. Raaya struggled, but could not free herself of him.

Batyrov’s heart was stopped in his chest. His eyes were fixed on Majida.

“Majida, please don’t! I’m sure we can talk this out with them!”

Raaya pleaded, but not for Shapur to release her.

Why was she pleading with Majida? Batyrov could not understand it.

“There won’t be more talking Raaya. Close your eyes until I tell you.”

Reluctantly, weeping and gritting her teeth, Raaya closed her eyes.

Her tail curled around one of her own legs.

“Bosporan, you had your chance.”

Majida suddenly tapped the side of Albescu’s gun with her hands.

Albescu pulled the trigger. Despite this the hammer did not move.

The cylinder slid out and fell to the floor. Bullets scattered across the room. Albescu began to shake. His breathing grew troubled. He stumbled back a step, clutching at his chest in terror.

Shapur turned his revolver from Raaya to Majida.

He rapped the trigger furiously but no bullets would come out.  To his own horror, he was suddenly overtaken by the same weakness as Albescu. He let Raaya go, and took a step back as if the wind had been knocked out of him. Both men fell to their knees, choking, grabbing their own shirts at their chests and necks as if ripping their clothing might allow them to breathe easier.

Vapor started to escape from their throats.

Vapor and gargling, horrifying screams.

Batyrov saw the men’s eyes sizzling as if they were being burned from inside. Blood escaped from their noses that bubbled on their lips. Their skin started to peel. Raaya and Asma avoided seeing it, but Batyrov could not tear himself away. Shapur and Albescu were burning as if from the inside, as if their blood had been made to boil and the water in them was evaporating.

Majida did not move. Her furious gaze locked on to the men.

“You will not be this cruel, Majida. End it swiftly.” Asma said. Her eyes were still averted.

That voice seemed to snap Majida out of the savage trance that had overtaken her.

In the next instant, Shapur and Albescu’s heads snapped to one side, breaking their necks.

Batyrov covered his mouth in revulsion. He wanted to vomit. He heaved and wept.

His men died with faces unrecognizable as human.

“Batyrov, you will thank the Almighty that I will let you leave here with your life.”

He could not respond. There was nothing that he could say.

He was frightened out of his wits and he felt the enormity of what had transpired hanging over his head. They had come here to negotiate for passage with Khaybar; and Batyrov had believed that they could be friends with Khaybar. Now they had nothing. He had corpses of men who had screamed they would kill the Shimii. Corpses petrified into a rictus of agony that he would not dare let anyone else see.

Majida stepped forward, and grabbed hold of the sleeve of his coat.

Helpless, Batyrov was silently dragged out of the Mawla’s home.

Outside, a group of white masks in their weathered grey coats appeared.

“Warlord! We were alerted to a commotion. What has happened?”

“There are dead men in the Mawla’s home. Remove them. Use them for fertilizer.”

She threw Batyrov to the ground in front of the white masks. Her strength in that moment had been so great and sudden that even though she had only been holding him by his sleeve, he fell to his knees like a child pushed down on the playground. Like he had no strength to resist with. His voice was still caught in his throat, he could not speak as the white masks looked down at him.

“Take this man back to his ship and surround it with Mujahideen. Nobody is to harm him, or the other Bosporans, but escort them away. I want all fighters alerted for the next 72 hours.”

Majida kneeled in front of the helpless Batyrov. Her wide, furious, red gaze was suddenly in front of his eyes. Almost involuntarily, he yelled and fell back, crawling away in a panic.

Her eyes then returned to their original color.

She sighed. She scratched her hair with frustration. Maybe at him; maybe even at herself in some way. “Batyrov, make your people leave. Go back to your Assembly. When you are serious about settling peace between us, have your people come in unarmed, civilian model ships.”

At Majida’s command, the white masks entered the abode and quickly removed the corpses of Albescu and Shapur. None of them seemed bothered by the appearance of the dead men. They took them, quickly bagged them in front of Batyrov and took them away. Not to be buried, but to be used as fertilizer.

Batyrov could not speak. There was nothing possible to say about this.

“Move, invader. If you regret your deeds, then pray you will be forgiven.”

He heard a female voice coming from behind a white mask.

She jabbed him in the shoulder with an assault rifle. Batyrov stood unsteadily.

From inside the Mawla’s abode, he heard Raaya cry loudly at Majida.

Then, he was taken away.

He went on an eerie march down to the elevator.

All the kittens who had been staring happily at him, looked at him with concern and dread.

Surrounded by the white masks, he was brought back down to the moonpool.

“You are lucky we don’t just throw you out into the ocean.”

From behind another mask, a male voice this time.

Batyrov found the Eminent surrounded by Divers, pointing 75 mm cannons at the top deck.

These were more of Khaybar’s original Divers. They had sturdy central bodies with smooth armor surfaces at simple angles and heavyset shoulders. A hooded metal “head” stuck out between the shoulders in which a single sensor “eye” was clearly visible. Arms and legs were somewhat thicker than usual, and the “skirt” or “waist” into which the legs were set was simple and itself somewhat thick. The cannons were clearly taken from ship mounts and modified for Diver use.

“Get in your ship and leave.” Said a white mask. “If you’re not out of here in fifteen minutes we’ll start shooting. When you get outside, we will follow you until we are satisfied you are gone.”

She pushed Batyrov forward, through a bulkhead and onto a chute. He walked without a thought in his brain for the several meters that the chute stretched, with the white masks behind him watching the entire time. When he got to the door on the ship’s end of the chute, he hit the door, having nowhere else to go. Awakened to a need to take action himself, he struck the door.

Finally, it opened, and his comrades allowed him in.

Once released from its docking clamps, the Eminent made its way back out of Khaybar.

The Eminent’s security team escorted Batyrov to the bridge.

Every PMF ship was organized differently. The Eminent had no Captain. Instead, Batyrov was brought to answer to a group of people responsible for the ship’s itinerary and actions. This group included the main communications officer, the members of the security team, and a few others. Batyrov felt, for the first time, that he wished there was somebody just calling the shots.

That way, he would have had to shame himself in front of only one person.

Despite his reeling mental state, Batyrov explained everything that had happened.

He explained all of his hopes, every step he took, the words he had said, as best as he could manage. When he explained Majida al-Khaybari, he thought of the many expressions on her face, from its gentle sympathy toward Raaya, to that mocking smile and coarse demeanor she showed the Bosporans and the troubled look on her face when Asma berated her for her lack of study. That whole little world trapped inside that rock. The hatred that erupted from Albescu and Shapur.

“We should return to the Assembly.” Batyrov said. He was almost pleading with them.

Several people mulled it over. Most of them agreed there was nothing more they could do.

“I’ll get in touch with the fleet.” The communications officer said. “We should separate and leave. A few of them were part of the Palatine border fleet. They’ll want to go back there. Batyrov, you’ve been through a lot. Go get yourself checked out. Those Shimii might have used a poison or a drug on you, that might explain some of the weird stuff you’re saying.”

Batyrov felt suddenly indignant. “You don’t believe it?”

“I believe you that you failed to get through to them. I believe you that they killed Shapur and Albescu. I don’t believe they used magic to burn them from the inside out. Sorry, Batyrov.”

He sent Batyrov on his way. He went to the infirmary. Everything was a blur.

Time passed, though Batyrov did not know how much. He confined himself to his cabin after he was cleared by the ship doctors, taking his meals in there, laying on his bed, performing no more ship duties. He did nothing but think. He thought about everything that happened. He kept thinking about Majida’s face, about the contrast between her smiles and those red, searing eyes that had scarred his mind. Something had broken in him. Something hurt horribly inside of him.

When he walked out with his entire class after hearing the news about Vogelheim, he never intended to be part of something as horrible as what transpired in Khaybar. He had felt like their people had the purest of intentions and the best path forward. Majida’s words haunted him. They represented a path he had not accounted for, challenges he felt he did not know the answer to.

“All hands, alert! Combat forces to battle stations!”

Batyrov’s eyes drew wide with horror. He returned to his present time, abruptly.

Had they gone back to the border? Was Rhinea or the Palatinate attacking?

“Silas Batyrov, report to the bridge!”

He hardly had time to process that he had been summoned, when several of his neighbors from the habitat block all charged into his room, and grabbed hold of him and started rushing him to the bridge. He had never seen anyone approach and address him with such anxiety, and of course his response was to struggle. He shouted, he begged to be let go. He felt like he was being arrested! Nobody would answer him, they manhandled him all the way into the command pod.

On the bridge, Batyrov was horrified to see the eerie, dim waters of Khaybar on the main screen.

There were a few cutters and frigates around the Eminent and some of the frigates had been modified with a pair of external Diver gantries. It looked like a much more belligerent force than the one that Batyrov had initially joined. In the distance, the predictor drew the walls of Khaybar far beyond where they would see them in the murk. They were maybe a kilometer away.

“Why are we here?” Batyrov shouted, his arms grabbed by two security officers.

“Batyrov,”

That condescending communications officer from before approached Batyrov.

He raised his hand to Batyrov’s cheek and gave him a few light slaps as if waking a child.

“Good, you seem to be aware. We’re going to pass through Khaybar. I want you to liaison with any Shimii that try to contact us. I assume they might be more inclined to talk to you since they know your face.”

“That is a bold assumption!” Batyrov shouted. “You have no idea who you trifle with!”

“We know what you told us. We’re not afraid of a few Shimii and their refurbished scrap.”

“I refuse! I refuse to participate in this! Give me a shuttle! I’m leaving this place!”

Batyrov shouted with such vehemence that people around him looked uncomfortable.

He was asserting his freedom, his rights. He could break his association with them.

But neither the security team, any of the bridge crew, or anyone else around him made any kind of move to concede him the freedom he felt owed. For a moment, Batyrov felt like he was suspended outside in the water, floating in the darkness of an uncertain world. He had seen some ugly sides to his comrades in the past few days but this was by far the ugliest he had witnessed.

Batyrov realized they would not let him go. They could come up with any excuse.

Maybe he was a “threat”; he would “betray” them to the Shimii some way. Maybe they really did think he was mentally ill. And perhaps he was. He now hoped so. Nonetheless, in his mind, it was completely rotten to deny his freedom for that. It was against all that they believed.

This was all a bad dream. A nightmare. That was what he started to tell himself.

“Unidentified unit approaching from the Khaybar Pass!”

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor put a red box around a single moving object, detected by its acoustic signature and the disturbance of the water around it. It was moving at high speeds from the pass. The predictor classified it as a Jagd class Diver, a newer model that was in limited supply in Bosporus but featured more heavily in the main navies of the Empire.

Batyrov knew that was not a Jagd.

He had not seen anything in Khaybar but custom models, what they called the Mujahideen.

When the predictor began to sharpen the image and outline and draw the object that was moving in, the silhouette was different from a Jagd. It had a broader chassis, a thicker flared skirt section where the legs attached. It was more heavyset. Batyrov recognized it as the red Diver that the Khaybarians had been working on in their workshop. In moments, it had cut the distance to the Bosporan fleet from a few thousand meters to five hundred. Looking at it from the front, Batyrov was struck by the degree of decoration on this Diver, colored red and gold and with its hooded head bearing a pair of angled fins that perhaps resembled the facial profile of its owner.

Batyrov could feel Majida al-Khaybari inside that mecha.

He didn’t know how but he was certain that it was her.

One of the side-screens on the bridge suddenly started glitching out.

A woman responsible for electronic warfare hailed the communications officer.

“There’s a laser communication coming through, but it’s on an unencrypted protocol I’ve never seen before. It’s not a cyber-attack, at least not an effective one. It’s just pushing junk data into our laser receiver. I’m not sure even if we accept this that anything will show up on the screen.”

While the communication officer was puzzled about what to do, Batyrov started putting together something in his panicked mind. Could Majida’s strange ability allow her to fire a laser at them, or was this a device they had ginned up in Khaybar? If they were just using Imperial equipment, then all their computers should have the same protocols, unless they reprogrammed everything in a novel way. However, if Majida could control the heat in someone’s body, could she project data through the light spectrum by focusing really hard also?

Could she project a laser?

Was this Majida’s will communicating with their computers? At this distance?

As if in answer to Batyrov’s question, fragmented video began to play on the side screen.

Inshallah you will go and return to your homes safely, anarchists. No one wants you here.”

Intercut with colored bands and pixelated segments that seemed to shift every second, was a video feed of Majida al-Khaybari. Those eyes of hers glowing red with her fury, the most clear and visible sign of her. It was difficult to see anything of her from how she video shifted, and her audio was also poor quality, but legible. Her eyes were perfectly visible, however. Eerily visible.

“Batyrov. I’m disappointed in you.” She said.

Batyrov looked into those eyes, feeling entranced. He could say nothing back to her.

Perhaps finally sick of his tarrying, the communications officer shoved him aside.

He stepped up to face the side screen.

“Warlord al-Khaybari, you have ruled as a petty tyrant over this strip of the Ocean for long enough. The Popular Mobilization Forces of the Bosporan Commune have assembled to–”

Majida burst out laughing suddenly, cutting off the communications officer.

“You’re serious? That’s your justification for attacking us? Perhaps I should leave this ‘strip of Ocean’ and start taking my ‘petty tyranny’ on the road, if this is the expectation you have of me. Batyrov, what did you even tell these people? I can’t believe it — after everything you saw.”

Following that response, the communications officer was wholly disarmed of his words.

Batyrov wanted to defend himself but he still couldn’t speak.

A part of him knew it would do no good. As much as he wished for Majida’s forgiveness.

None of them could have it anymore. That opportunity was long gone.

Majida raised a fist to the camera.

For a moment, her lips were quite visibly curled into a grin.

“Khaybar Pass is closed to you demons. I will give you one last chance to turn around.”

Because the communications officer on the Eminent was just one man in a much grander scheme, he began to motion for the feed from Majida to be passed on to other ships. However, the electronic warfare officer found it impossible to relay Majida’s video across the laser network linking the flotilla. It was as if the data could only be read on the computer Majida was bombarding with data, as if the connection was completely bespoke. They had never seen anything like it.

While the Eminent tried to communicate Majida’s intentions, without warning, the other frigates in the fleet began to move independently against her. Divers undocked from them: two old Volkers were strapped to each of four frigates. Armed with assault rifles, they formed up and charged toward Majida from multiple directions, operating as pairs. On the Eminent, Majida clearly noticed what was happening.

Her grinning turned ever more bloodthirsty on the video.

“So be it then. As the Mawla says, our whole lives have been jihad.”

Her Diver withdrew a weapon from its backpack that seemed like nothing but a metal rod.

On the main screen, the algorithmic predictor did not even try to pass it off as a sword.

“It’s just one unit. One unit with a stick.” The communications officer said. “Focus fire and destroy it.”

He could not give orders but he could make suggestions. It was an easy suggestion to make.

Around Majida’s unit, the Volkers came from every direction.

Two charged at her with melee weapons.

Six others fired on her with assault rifles and cannons.

On the main screen, there was a brief flash of light that tarnished the picture.

“A glitch? What’s with all the visual glitches today?”

That confusion did not last long.

Majida’s mecha suddenly thrust upward, away from the two charging Volkers that nearly collided with one another. A hundred rounds of assault rifle ammunition exploded in long lines of bubbles that trailed behind her as she looped back around toward the fleet, gracefully moving between each Volker’s field of fire. The shooters struggled to follow her with their guns, trying to lead their shots. Majida used the three-dimensional environment better than any pilot Batyrov had ever seen, banking away from attacks, diving and climbing around cannon fire, rolling out of enfilading fire from multiple directions.

The Volkers pursued, looking clunky. Her movement was so fluid, while they made abortive thrusts in seemingly random directions just to keep her in sight. Some went upside down; others went into spins; they were clearly only looking through their guns, and not using any of their other cameras.

Amateurish, but the sort of fighting that was acceptable for rookie pilots. If they could hit anything.

“How can she move like that? It’s like she knows where they’re going to shoot.”

Scores of bullets were sent her way, to the point that the battlefield became a fog cloud of bubbles and collapsing vapor orbs, the water around them heavily disturbed. Majida continued moving in what the computers suddenly calculated as a pattern, not merely random leaps and bounds. She was moving in something of a circle around the outer edge of the Volker formation.

“She’s corralling you into the center of the bubbles! Disperse!” shouted the officer.

Majida turned and dove into the Volkers.

That metal rod in her Diver’s hands flashed suddenly.

Water vaporized around the rod to the point that it was swung as if through the air.

And the slash it put through a Volker encountered little resistance from its armor.

In an instant, she had cleaved the mecha in half.

Majida soared upward past the bifurcated chassis and then dropped back down, jabbing the makeshift sword through the chassis of a second Volker and leaving a perfect orifice in the cockpit armor. A red mist poured out of the mecha as it floated without power in the dim, murky waters.

“What is happening?”

All across the anarchist fleet, there was panic and confusion.

Even at close range, the Volkers with assault rifles could not put a single round on Majida, who swerved down on them. Swimming in a spiral, she engaged her jets in quick bursts to correct her path away from streaks of panicked gunfire. Coming upon a third Volker, she jerked under its fully automatic fire at close range and sliced off its arms in a single swing. Red-hot rings burned on the stumps where the mecha’s arms had once connected, giving off streams of vapor.

On the Eminent, the status for that Volker flashed a delayed OVERHEATING message as Majida’s rod went through the center of the cockpit and sliced out of one flank. The Agarthicite-layered batteries flashed purple and melted down, briefly zapping the surrounding waters with tongues of purple energy that left a small web of hexagon-shaped scars on the dismembered, disemboweled remains of the Volker. Majida jetted away from the chassis completely unharmed.

Everything she touched melted completely but that rod she used as a sword did not.

“That rod is an alloy; it might be tungsten or osmium.” Batyrov finally said.

He finally spoke his thoughts aloud. Everyone on the bridge turned to look at him in shock.

Batyrov realized her sword must have been made of reactor materials.

Osmium, tungsten, depleted agarthicite, some combination. He thought it resembled a piece of a containment pillar. If Majida could control heat, she could heat that hunk of metal just short of its likely extreme high melting point. That would make the “sword” a torch that would melt most military grade armor quickly. If she had enough control to heat only the contact surface, and to heat it for just long enough–

A pair of the Volkers dropped their rifles and produced their vibroblades.

They suddenly threw themselves into a collision course with Majida’s mech.

She slowed to a stop in a split second and caught both their swords with her own.

Their weapons melted to slag in their hands. Water warped around them from the heat.

When they tried to back off, Majida drew a makeshift assault rifle and opened fire one-handed.

At close range they were riddled with 37mm bullets on their over-heated armor.

Everyone on the bridge gritted their teeth. Several Volkers had gone down in minutes.

“We have to organize a barrage on her, it’s the only way!”

From across the fleet, several messages reached the Eminent accepting the idea of a main gun barrage on Majida’s mecha. By saturating the immediate area with high caliber gunfire, they would make it impossible to avoid damage, no matter how much she could anticipate their fire. She would have nowhere to run, everywhere around her would be crushing vapor bubbles, tearing her to pieces. Each of those frigates had 80 mm torpedoes and double-barreled 100 mm guns for this purpose.

While targeting data was synced across the ships, Majida easily cut up another Volker.

The remaining Volkers retreated with advance warning of the barrage.

Majida turned her mecha to face the Bosporan fleet.

She thrust suddenly toward them.

Before anyone fired a shot, an enormous vapor bubble engulfed her.

“Is that– you’re shitting me!”

On the bridge of the Eminent, the staff received another shock when Majida began to charge at the fleet at incredible speeds unknown to any Divers. All with the help of a sudden air pocket in which she had encased herself, allowing her to move much faster than through the water itself. Her turbines must have been taking a beating sucking in hot water and vapor, but the bubble allowed her to cut the 500 meters between herself and the Bosporan fleet in an instant.

Just like a shell fired out of all the coilguns that would not get to fire upon her.

Majida soared beneath a nearby frigate and banked around its left flank.

Extending her blade out of the vapor bubble, she embedded it into the side of the ship.

Jetting across the port side armor, Majida left a slash the entire length of the frigate.

As she shot off overhead, the frigate began to take in water and sink.

Now Majida was among the fleet. All manner of flak fire began to chase after her without success. The Bosporans grew increasingly desperate, and the communication between ships completely broke down. Everyone began to target flak wholly individually and made careful moves to secure their own exit routes. The volume of flak was an order of magnitude greater than the shots she had avoided before, and Majida maneuvered around their defensive flak much more carefully than when she fought the Volkers, putting a greater effort on maneuver and less on retaliation. With the tight swimming of a torpedo and the speed of a coilgun shell, Majida weaved around the fleet unharmed, fully in control of the fates of everyone around her.

Every second she spent among them without sinking terrified the Bosporans further.

Such was the chaos on the bridge on the Eminent, as different groups began to yell at each other over what they should do, that when the main screen registered a new series of objects coming in from the direction of Khaybar, it took a moment for everyone to stop shouting and stare at the screen. The algorithmic predictor drew red boxes around eight areas of interest, and began trying to enhance the picture based on the acoustic signatures that were being picked up.

While Majida continued to dance around the Bosporan fleet, several ships had appeared.

At the head of the Khaybarian flotilla was an absolutely massive craft, flanked by five of the same type of Frigate that the Bosporans possessed, Imperial Marder class. Among them were a dozen divers of the type Batyrov had seen in Khaybar, Mujahid. Painted green and with much less decoration or elaboration as Majida’s model, but armed to the teeth with cannons and rifles.

“That’s a dreadnought. You’re telling me they can maintain and field a dreadnought?”

The communications officer on the Eminent’s bridge looked like he wanted to collapse.

That looked like a Koenig-class Dreadnought: far bigger than all the ships in the Free fleet.

With Majida disrupting their fleet they could not hope to focus fire on that Dreadnought.

And firing on it with all guns was the only way they could have taken it down.

At the sight of incoming allies, Majida looped over the Bosporan fleet and turned around. From the Khaybarian flotilla, a volley of coilgun fire swept across the murky waters and exploded around the Bosporan ships, whose formation was in utter disarray. The Dreadnought proved that it was as deadly as in the hands of the Khaybarians as it was within the Empire, its 203 mm gun putting a hole into the side of an anarchist Frigate that sent it toppling and sinking on its side.

Ships began to flee at full speed on the anarchist side, peeling off from the fleet in every direction that they could find. There was no communication between them, no agreed-upon place where they could reconvene, no course of action. They were simply turning tail and running from the fight. All the while the Khaybarians took free potshots into the water around them.

The Eminent was one of the first to show its broadside to the Khaybarians as it escaped.

Miraculously, it was not the target of the enemy attacks, and beat a hasty retreat.

All the while, Batyrov watched helplessly. He almost wished they had been shot down.

He could not help but think that all this pointless suffering had been entirely his fault.

If only he had been stronger; if he could have commanded more influence or trust.

Or perhaps, if only he could have understood Majida better.

He kneeled on the floor of the bridge, powerless and defeated, watching on the main screen as that red Diver took its place triumphantly at the head of the Khaybarian fleet. He thought of her face again, and of those haunting eyes. Could he really go back to the assembly and tell them all that he had learned?

Would they just try to use that knowledge to keep fighting these people?

Bosporus needed the Khaybar Pass for their war. Their righteous war for freedom.

Could he stand up in front of the Assembly and tell them everything Majida wanted?

He did not want to go back on his word, but he felt hopeless. It would do nothing. They would all respond like Shapur and Albescu had. How could they not? Majida was asking for things that were simply impossible for the Bosporans to accept, even with their new understanding of the world, even in the new society they were trying to create. Batyrov grit his teeth, weeping.

The Commune had made itself another enemy that day. He had seen it in Majida’s eyes.

To her, they were no better than the Imbrian Empire.


“KPC-002 Ali, pilot Majida al-Khaybari, approaching to dock.”

Her voice was weak, her vision wavering.

Thankfully she had swam this route enough to do it blindly.

There was a second, smaller dock beneath Khaybar on the opposite side of the pass. Majida navigated her mech into what looked like a moonpool, but in reality, had an absolutely massive pressure door that could be closed behind her. When it drained and depressurized, a crane lifted her mecha out of the hole and deposited it on a metal surface where equipment could be serviced.

Majida bowed her mecha, undid the belts fastening her to seat, and practically tumbled out.

She collapsed onto the ground below, her head fully in the grip of a horrific agony.

Gasping for air on the floor, she heaved small amounts of blood.

There was blood coming out of her nose, her eyes. A tiny pool draining from her.

Her Fedayeen, the white masked warriors of Khaybar, approached with concern. When they tried to grab her, she pushed them away with one arm. Part of her was suffering, part of her was furious, and part of her felt triumphant. She had practiced enough, expanded her powers enough, that the backlash only lasted so long.

It had not been the sword. It was the speed. She had never tried to do it.

She knew it would work, in theory, as an expression of her power.

A coilgun shell created a bubble around itself to move through air.

With enough heat, and a fine enough application of heat, she did the same.

What she had not realized was how much it would tax her to do such a thing.

After about a minute, she stood on shaking legs.

“If you’re so worried, make Dua for me, but I assure you, I’m fine.”

Soon the ring of people that had formed around her parted to make way for a pair of people coming through. More than a few of the white masks were murmuring with shock or concern as they allowed Mawla Asma Al-Shahouh and her daughter Raaya through to meet with Majida. Even Majida was a little taken aback. It was rare to see the Mawla out and about. Everyone considered her important family, so they wondered openly if it would not be better if she got some rest.

“Mawla, it is not good for your health to make such an effort.” Majida said.

When the Mawla stood in front of Majida, her eyes cast a critical glance over to the mecha that a pair of white masks were anchoring to a makeshift gantry via the powered crane. She heaved a sigh, as if the machine was not a welcome sight. She turned a softer, sadder expression on Majida.

“I had heard that you had gone to battle. We were all worried about you and the fighters.”

Majida grinned at her. “Hah! It was a great victory as always! Allahu ackbar!

She raised her fist up suddenly in celebration. Around her, several white masks joined her.

A pair of hands suddenly grabbed hold of Majida’s raised fist and dragged it down.

“Absolutely not! Absolutely not! This is exactly the attitude I was afraid I would see!”

With a physical force that Majida had not felt upon her own person in a long time, she was grabbed by Mawla Asma. She brought down Majida’s fist, and took both of her arms by the wrists.

Everyone was shocked by this sudden outburst. They all stepped back from the scene.

The Mawla cast her furious gaze around the room as if to implicate everyone.

“You will not celebrate like this! Not in the name of our Lord! We do not celebrate having to fight and kill others!” Asma raised her voice. She looked straight into the eyes of the shocked, stunned girl shrinking before her, her arms seized like a child’s. “Majida, these people all look up to you as an example, because you have fought and sacrificed for your ummah and we cherish your strength! But we will not celebrate that you had to stain these kind hands with blood! These hands that touch the floor in prayer, and that you lay upon your breast with humility at our doors!”

Asma’s fingers moved down Majida’s hands, sliding across the wrist and squeezing gently.

There were tears streaking down the Mawla’s cheeks that everyone could see.

At their side, Raaya turned her gaze away. She was beginning to weep as well.

Majida, too, started to weep. She felt like a lost little girl in front of the mature authority of the Mawla who had taught her everything, and now sanctioned her. Her mind was a complete fog.

Mawla Asma,” she did not dare call her Khala, at that moment. It was too familiar.

Everything that was happening was so sudden. Majida hardly had time to think straight.

“I’m not naïve.” Asma said suddenly, cutting Majida off before she could defend herself. “I will never tell you to stop fighting for our ummah. Our entire life here is jihad, I taught you that. I taught you that jihad is our struggle for dignity and justice. That is a fight we wage solemnly, not just against enemies, but to make ourselves better. It is a fight for your soul, and you are losing it. You hurry out into the Oceans to fight and you come back with a smile! I can’t bear to see it again.”

Majida could not say anything to that. She averted her gaze from Asma’s, conflicted.

Asma slowly and gently let go of Majida’s hands.

There was no hatred or anger or violence from Mawla Asma. She was hurt; disappointed; maybe even scared. Even without being able to sense the Mawla’s feelings, Majida could tell this. Just from having grown up under her tutelage and having seen faces like that many times as she studied under her.

Asma turned around and started walking back the way she came. Raaya gave Majida a sympathetic look; the kind they always exchanged in a difficult situation and that left the door open for them to heal from this moment. It was that look that prevented Majida from crying any further. The Mawla quite soon had visible difficulty walking and Raaya had to support her, so she followed after her mother and the pair of them went away, leaving a tremendous silence behind.

Majida sighed heavily. She raised a hand to cover her eyes and wipe her tears.

At her side, one of the white masks approached. He put his fist up his chest in greeting.

“Warlord al-Khaybari. I want to speak with you as a brother.”

“Thank you, Talun. Of course, you may speak.” Majida said weakly.

She turned a weary glance at this particular white mask. She knew his name as Talun. She had made herself remember all of their names and to be able to tell them by how she felt about them when they came close. For some of them, because they had a blessing like her, she could not feel them as easily, so she learned their voices instead. Talun’s mind was pure and earnest, he did not trouble himself to hide anything. That was why he was able to approach her in the first place.

“Recently you appointed me a squadron leader, joining the great sister Zahida and brother Harun. So, I feel a responsibility to speak to you as someone responsible for others. I understand the Mawla’s words, because she has borne the pain of losing many warriors in the past. Her words moved me to tears because I remembered the great Warlord al-Shahouh in Heaven and made Dua for him when he passed. We train hard alongside you so that we can fight with you, so that inshallah we will win back our sacred places and invite all Shimii to return from estrangement. I hope you understand our meaning, sister Majida, if I can be honored to call you my sister.”

Majida was shocked, realizing from his words what Khala Asma had been saying to her.

Again. Asma had seen in Majida’s bloodlust an image of someone long-departed.

Talun had such a simple heart, but the way he spoke was eloquent, and he understood the situation even better than she had. It touched Majida’s heart to hear such words and the sentiment behind them. She loved them. Everyone behind those masks was someone worth remembering to her. Someone worth protecting. That was how Majida viewed all the fighters at Khaybar.

None of the Fedayeen would say, “Warlord, please let us fight in your stead.” All of them understood her too well. They knew she would never accept that. Those words were Talun’s way of saying that the Fedayeen should fight more than her. Or perhaps, maybe closer together.

Her heart began to warm over. She tried to play off her emotions by putting on a glib front.

“Of course, you can call me Majida, Talun! I’m nobody, when did I become so special?”

“Majida, I believe it was when Warlord al-Shahouh said to throw away your mask!”

His elated response brought a grin to her face. “Hah! Well, I suppose that is true!”

Despite her powers, and the strangeness of her body and the nature of her birth, everyone at Khaybar supported her, and when they admired her, it was for none of those painful things. They accepted her as a Shimii; they could have just turned her away, but they were so full of love. Everyone united in that struggle for the dignity of the Shimii; for all that they had lost. Majida hid it under a smiling face, but she felt a great pain and a great love in equal measure in her heart. Even if it cost her life, she could not abide losing even a single solitary soul in Khaybar. She hoped that Allah, subhanahu wa ta’ala, would have mercy on her.

Khaybar’s jihad was her own, to the bitter end.


Previous ~ Next

Arc 1 Intermissions [I.5]

Content warning: This story contains themes of suicide and mental illness.

The Martyr

Polity: Duchy of Buren

Naval strength: 500 ships (National Front of Buren), plus Irregulars

There would have been war in Buren even if the Emperor had survived to see it.

Throughout the dark, deep, rocky state of Buren, which straddled the corrupted continent once known as “Nobilis” on three sides, a cry had sounded for generations. It sounded in the mines where deadly Agarthicite could claim the lives of hundreds of workers in an instant. It sounded quietly in the bunks of rank-and-file sailors who dreamt of the legends their grandparents told them about the free nation that they once were. It sounded in the factories that made weapons and goods for the consumption of the rich in Rhinea, Skarsgaard and the rest of the Imperial heartland. It was the cry of the disposessed and the cry of quietly suffering.

“Buren shall be free again!” 

A similar cry sounded from the halls of the ducal palace.

“The Nationalists have come to set Buren free!”

Though it was a word that inspired terror in the left across the Ocean, they adopted it.

“Nationalist” made sense to the Bureni folk. Their goal was to become a nation again.

Their freedom fighters named themselves the “National Front of Buren.”

“Buren shall be free again!”

Automatic bursts from Volker rifles muffled but could not silence their cries.

Inside the flat, square station of Lithopolis, the LCD paneled false sky intercut with gray static bands as power fluctuated suddenly. A powerful explosion rocked the station as the waters around it were heavily disturbed. A Koenig-class Dreadnought of the Bureni Defense Forces, struck by multiple torpedoes, sank and smashed into the seafloor around the base of the pillar, setting off a second series of shocks. For a moment, the ground forces that had penetrated the station stumbled, holding on to whatever they could grab for support.

“Have we captured an entry point?”

Radio coverage was spotty as the Diver transitioned from the water to the port interior.

“Yes, commander! You can come up!”

A pair of nationalist Divers arrived through the captured lower port and quickly made their way up into the city through cargo elevators. Blood and corpses and the detritus of ruined divers and weapon emplacements met them as they went. There had been a hellish battle for those elevators, but they were now being held by the nationalists. Both Divers stepped onto the platform.

“Are you ready, Sophia? I have your back, so let’s put a beautiful wax seal on this coup.”

“Irene. If I died today, could you continue the fight without me?”

Neither pilot could see the other’s face, they were moving too quicky and had not established a laser call between their cockpits. But those dire words and their reaction were clear enough from the emotion in both tones of voice. One was exhausted, resigned; and the other was emotional, highly emotional, but trying her best not to let it overcome her as she spoke.

“There is no way in hell you would die here, Sophia. Not when we made it this far.”

“You’re right. I’m sorry.”

“For what?”

Sophia was sorry for the task she had made herself carry out.

“Nothing.”

She could not explain to her companion the storm of emotions rolling in her mind.

All she could hope for was that Irene would not be there at the end.

Sophia put on the mask that befit the esteemed commander of the Nationalist Fleet.

Her personal conflicts had to remain hidden. She was walking into a battlefield.

As the elevator rose to its destination the sounds of gunfire intensified. Once the Divers were lifted up into the station proper, they first thing they saw was smoke. There were pits all over the false turf that made the palace look like a rural countryside. Buildings had taken shell blows and half-collapsed into rubble, or been hollowed out by fires. Sophia hoped the palace staff had been able to evacuate. Everywhere she turned, the results of the fight were terribly brutal.

Sophia switched her communications to a radio frequency and called the infantry liaison.

“Command has arrived at the front. I need a situation report.”

“Everything is in place for the final push, Commander! We’re awaiting your orders!”

Inside the cockpit of a Reschold-Kolt license-produced Panzer unit now appearing on the front lines, was the commander of the main nationalist force, Sophia Tzanavaras. All of her comrades had chosen her to lead the attack on Lithopolis, and despite her misgivings, she accepted the responsibility. She arrived at a mustering point on the outer edge of the capitol center, held by a mix of militiamen, riot-armored troops and a few pilots who constituted the first boarding party.

“Were the civilians able to evacuate?” Sophia asked.

“We didn’t see any civvies ma’am, but the port was in disarray. I think a lot of people fled really suddenly. Even the security forces were in chaos. It’s just us and the palace guards now.”

Lithopolis consisted of an outer ring of tenement habitation for service workers and servants surrounding the vast ducal estate. After invading the dock and taking the cargo elevators, the Nationalist troops mustered with the large tenement buildings between themselves and the firing lines from the ducal grounds. Shells and periodic rifle fire flew in between and over the buildings as if to remind the nationalists that there were enemies watching them approach.

 Predominantly flat, green terrain surrounded the palace, dotted with buildings. The ducal estate encompassed private farmland, a small pond, a horse track, a gymnasium, and the palace itself in the middle ring. Its buildings were all white, pillared, artistic architecture for the pleasure of the nobles. Through Sophia’s eyes, what she saw was not the beautiful ducal parcels but a complex battlefield with multiple terrain features that was nonetheless quite open to assault.

Outside Lithopolis, the waters sang with the eerie sound of ordnance. The Nationalist fleet had the remnants of the Bureni Defense Forces in the midst of a rout. Sophia had started her rebellion with her own kampfgruppe of defected naval forces and some militias on converted civilian ships or stolen navy ships. Now through the defection of her countrymen and vast mutinies against the officer class, her naval troops outnumbered those of the Duke. Her wish was to provoke further defections, and enhance her own numbers. That was all that prevented her from ordering the outright slaughter of the Defense Forces. Losing the BDF’s leading dreadnought was a pity.

“I’m going through our options. Is this everybody?” Sophia asked.

On the auxiliary video screen of her Panzer, Sophia spoke with a young man, who looked barely old enough to drink, sitting in front of an unfolded communicator box that was sending an encrypted laser video to her mecha. She could also see him in the camera feeds. He was dressed in riot armor. On the floor near him there was a ballistic shield, stained dark brown with blood, as well as an unloaded jet lance. There were six other riot-armored men and women in the mustering point geared up with shields, rifles, jet lances, vibro-swords, and about a half-dozen shoulder-fired, portable missile tubes. Everyone had blood on them, either on their weapons or their armor.

“The boarding party got hit hard ma’am. The enemy’s Divers and ours took each other out almost immediately inside the dock. Then their riot troops came out and set up machine guns and grenade launchers. They tried to block us out of the cargo elevator. We had them outnumbered but they were really entrenched. When the naval battle swung in our favor, they retreated into the sanctum. We weren’t in any good shape to stop them, so we just held onto the elevators. I’m sorry.”

“You all fought valiantly. Stand tall. Buren will commemorate all of your names.”

Around the boy there were also a few dozen militiamen equipped with nothing but worker coverall coats worn over bodysuits for armor. They had surplus rifles loaded with frangible spike ammo to prevent them from damaging sensitive gear inside the station corridors and in the city.

Station fighting was brutal. Layouts were tight and favored the defender as long as they had gear and supplies. Against an enemy force with armor, shields and lethal weapons holding a natural chokepoint in any ordinary station layout, the invading force was bound to suffer losses. Despite the cost in blood, they had been able to come this far. Any armor would break with enough bullets. Even if it took a few squadrons, Sophia and her forces had managed to break through.

Ordinary people could fight the insurmountable juggernaut of the Empire. Any defense could be broken, any stolen land taken back. The history of the Union had taught her as much. In prison, she had found hope in the histories of the Union’s rebellion. It was this hope that led her to join Buren’s own rebellion. For atonement, she sacrificed all of herself that she could and led numerous battles to get here. Despite the odds, they had made it to the heart of Buren’s darkness.

For the bloodletting to end definitively she had to kill the people hiding at the center of this ring.

To atone for having supported the aristocrats, she told herself she had to be the one to slaughter them.

“We could press the assault with what we have, or wait to muster more troops.”

Sophia saw a new feed appear on one of her monitors and address her. This was the interior of the other Diver cockpit. A young woman gave her a gentle smile — an unlikely companion for an unlikely commander. Everything that surrounded them had been a game of pure chance.

“If we give them a chance to regroup, they’ll cost more lives to dislodge.” Sophia replied. “We need to keep the pressure on them, but we might not need the infantry to commit themselves to an assault. I can punch a hole through to the palace myself, if I could get a distraction.”

“You have an army, Sophia. I’m prepared to fight too. I won’t let you martyr yourself.”

On the screen was the face of her adjutant, Irene Dimitros, piloting a Jagd model Diver.

Irene was the only other member of Sophia’s own fireteam.

“It’s not like that.” Sophia said. She stammered, just a bit. “It’s just my responsibility.”

“You don’t have to bear that responsibility alone! Sophia, I’m always at your side!”

Irene looked concerned. Sophia shook her head.

“Irene, I think it would just be better, for less of us to be at the palace in the final hour.”

Her companion’s eyes drew wide. She understood what Sophia meant, and deferred to her.

Sophia turned away from Irene and gave her orders to the infantry over encrypted radio.

“We’ll need coordination to pull this off. On my signal, we will deploy chaff and colored gas to cover the left flank and open fire on the guard compound. I want you to fire on the move but not launch an assault. Stay mobile, commit to nothing, and leave your options open. I need the armored troops to take responsibility for our unarmored comrades. Lieutenant Dimitros and I will launch our own attack after yours. Once we have disabled their fire support, I’ll throw a flare. When you see that flare, then, and only then, will you commit all forces to assault. Understood?”

She waited for acknowledgment, and all the squadron members saluted her Diver.

“Break open a quick ration and catch your breath. We move out in 10 minutes!”

There was a flurry of activity around Sophia’s Diver. Men and women dug into their rations, checked their equipment, stood up from the walls they had been sitting against. Some took off their helmets to rearrange their hair. Riflemen took turns laying down suppressing fire on the sanctum from around the tenement walls, to keep the enemy entertained while everyone prepared.

Sophia took a bite of a seaweed stick and drank down an energy gel as quickly as she could.

“We can do this, Sophia.” Irene said. “In fact, this will be the easy part.”

Irene was right. There would be more battles after this for the National Front of Buren.

For them— but maybe not for her. She was no longer sure.

When the ten minutes were up, her forces started moving again with coordination. From the tenements, the nationalist squadrons advanced northeast around the left flank of the palace defenders, moving through the sparse urban environment on Lithopolis’ outer ring. They employed whatever cover they could find to mask their movements, from abandoned buildings to generator control boxes, wireless towers and discarded monorail cars, to concrete guardrails and vacant guard outposts. In order to sustain the nationalist’s deception, Sophia and Irene moved their Divers into position near the edge of the tenements, where their squadrons had once been. They fired their assault rifles around the blind corners created by the buildings, causing small blasts to go off on the broad green separating them from the palace. Their enemy easily took notice of this activity.

In response, gunfire from heavy machine guns and light explosives fired by stationary tube launchers soared in between the tenement buildings and churned up the fake turf in a series of volleys. Irene and Sophia hid quickly and avoided the retaliation. Judging by the direction of fire, Sophia began to plot how she would move when the time came, and passed the data to Irene. Her enemy’s attention remained squarely on the center, and that was what Sophia wanted for now.

Soon her squadrons had moved beyond her ability to follow with her own sight, but she could track their progress and view their surroundings via a direct link to a camera drone employed by the teams. Inside the station, she had access to reliable, fast wireless data transfer. It was the kind of boon that was easy to forget for soldiers trained to fight in the ocean, disconnected from most communications. Through the eyes of her drone, she watched as her team got into position.

Colored smoke crept across the open field on the eastern half of the palace ground.

Smoke and pops of gray anti-sensor chaff, like glittering trails falling from the sky.

Shoulder-fired missiles soared out of the clouds and crashed into the guard compound.

Fire engulfed several buildings, all of which had been abandoned. No guards were hit.

But the message being sent was clear. An assault was coming from the left flank.

Withering gunfire erupted from defensive positions in the guard compound and the palace farther behind it. Grenades and missiles hurtled back across the field and smashed into the shops, streets and the monorail station from which the nationalist missiles had come from. Massed rifle and machine gun fire from both infantry weapons and a few Volker class Divers raked the cloud of colored smoke. Because of the chaff, their instruments could not penetrate the smokescreen.

The defenders of the palace assumed the nationalists were assaulting the guard compound.

Meanwhile, the nationalists did not tarry in the monorail station or any of the shops.

They were constantly on the move, and more colored gas and chaff covered them.

It covered where they had been, and where they were going, blanketing the entire east.

Their enemy could not tell a direction for the assault except, broadly, “the left flank.”

All of the gunfire that had once massed against the southern, central approach, turned away to the east.

Her enemy had fully redeployed their defenses to what they assumed was the new axis of attack.

“Irene, now’s our chance! Stick close to me!”

Sophia and Irene charged from the tenement buildings out into the field.

The Panzer was heavy, but its chassis developed a lot of power, and its gait allowed Sophia to advance faster than a human could run across the estate grounds. Meanwhile the Jagd was lighter and had a more complex chassis that flowed somewhat easily through the air. Both pilots opened their turbines, sucking in air that kept them in balance as they ran. In the short term this would damage the turbines, which were designed to accelerate cold water rather than warm air, but it supported their charge overland.

Lithopolis was not a fortress. It was not designed as a defensible position. Even the guard compound was just a collection of barracks buildings and training grounds meant to house the guards rather than defend the palace. Though built on a hill, the palace was surrounded by pretty gardens and tended green fields, by tracks and hunting ground and a pond, not by trenches and gun turrets. Even the placement of building cover was purely incidental. There were no defensive walls, no fences, no barbed wire, nothing to stop them.

Weapon emplacements had been set up on the broad, semi-circular portico façade of the palace, and hidden in the second story windows. Divers stood atop the hill, shooting from their vantage down to the green below. Every element of the defense was exposed, and it was only their commanding position that allowed them to disrupt attacks effectively. There was nothing between Sophia’s charge and the enemy in front of her except the distance it took to get near them.

And now they were not even looking her way. All their weapons were turned east.

Once the enemy recognized their approach, it was too late to split their fire.

Sophia charged up the hill as an enemy Volker half-turned and fired its assault rifle.

Chunks of her armor went flying but the Panzer was built sturdy enough for rifle fire and could not be stopped so easily.

Sophia swung her vibro-sword and cleaved an enormous dent into the rotund chassis.

Briefly exposed to the vibrating edge of the blade, the pilot inside collapsed in agony.

From behind Sophia, a pair of jet anchors soared overhead and smashed through two individual windows in the second story of the palace. Each of the ornate bowed windows disgorged a team of men and their tripod missile launcher, crushed or in pieces from the force of the blow and the jets, blade and cables on the anchors — whichever part made contact was enough to kill.

Irene retracted the anchors and climbed up the stone steps to the portico.

Walking forward through small arms fire, she retaliated with devastating bursts of 20 mm explosive bullets from the shoulder guns on her Jagd. Each snapping blast sent casing fragments and chunks of colonnades into the ranks of the infantry. There were scores of the dead, hunkered down where they could be buried in rubble or blown apart as their own weapons detonated. Sensing the plight of the infantry, a second Volker turned from the guard compound and ran to the portico, only to meet an immediate end as Sophia easily put dozens of assault rifle rounds upon it before it could even heft its gun. It fell backward, oozing lubricants, fuel, battery acid and the blood of the pilot through innumerable penetrations in its armor.

Sophia reloaded. There was not much of the defense now left.

She charged around the eastern wall of the palace, coming to face the colored smoke far in the distance. From the shoulder of her mecha, she launched a flare that sailed up into the sky, and burst in a pattern of red and green colors that signaled the infantry to assault. She remained still only long enough to confirm the movement of people past the dying chaff clouds, before turning her assault rifle on the palace itself.

She lifted the rifle one-handed and took aim with it.

Facing the upper stories, she pressed the trigger down and turned her gun systematically from one window to another, putting three rounds into each. Explosions rocked the entire top floor of the palace, one room at a time in turn, until Sophia’s magazine emptied. Glass, concrete and brick expulsed from the building bounced off the pitted armor of her Panzer suit in a rain of debris. Anyone in those rooms would be reduced to pieces.

Once her computer could detect no further hostile activity, she had the Panzer bow down.

Sophia exited the suit, jumping down from the cockpit, between her sword and her gun.

She took off her helmet, freeing her voluminous, sweat-soaked blond hair. Her skin was clammy, and her golden eyes teared up when exposed to unfiltered light and air. She had been fighting for so long. It almost felt like she was taking her first breath of fresh air in weeks. She had nothing but her pilot suit covering her, and even so Lithopolis felt oppressively hot and damp.

Sophia recovered her senses quickly. Her fingers quivered with the knowledge of what she would do. Catching her breath, she produced her sidearm and ran heedlessly into the palace.

She found herself stepping over all manner of broken human remains, spreading pools of blood and molten fat from bodies caught in explosives or set ablaze when their weapon emplacements detonated on them. Irene had completely ruined the place before she moved on from the portico. No glass stood unshattered, every door was off its hinges, every tile cracked by shrapnel if not direct explosive trauma. Sophia rushed through the front hall, a grotesque corridor of dead and dying soldiers. She kicked open the double doors into the inner sanctum of the palace. Imposing as they were, they were not designed to lock securely.

Inside the high-walled, gold and pearlescent white inner sanctum was a shrine to Solceanos, the great sun-deity depicted as a man with a burning halo and surrounded in rays of smoke and fire. At the base of this being, as if he were looking down on them in their hour of desperation, were two figures huddled together. Sophia recognized both, dressed in embroidered silk cloth, bedecked with jewelry, their beauty well contrived even in this hour of wrath, even surrounded by blood and bullets. That was the way of the aristocracy.

Her features twisted with anger at the sight of the Duke and his daughter.

“Duke Pascheladis!” Sophia said. “Stand up! Own up to your sins and face me!”

It was not the Duke who stood first. His daughter Nereida approached Sophia.

“Please, have some humanity! You cannot do this! Look at father, look at what has–”

Nereida didn’t recognize her. Sophia retrained her aim and fired a single round.

As soon as she stood, Nereida fell aside with a hole the width of a finger through her brow.

There was no emotion in Sophia’s eyes. Nereida meant nothing to her anymore.

“Stand up, Pascheladis!” Sophia shouted, spitting fury at the villain before her.

There was no way that this man would stand up to her. She soon recognized this.

On the floor, the Duke was at his most wretched.

Shaking, teeth chattering in the grip of madness. He could not say a word to her. He would not even make eye contact. It was as if he was trying to crawl endlessly against an invisible wall. He scratched at the base of the statue until his fingers had gone purple and red. He wept, and shouted. It was as if the terror of the palace coming under attack had fully robbed him of his wits. Had he ever shown such frailty before this?

Nereida had been tending to him because he had completely broken down.

Sophia’s eye twitched. Her heart beat faster and faster. Her head felt red-hot with anger.

At the sight of the panicking, crying, incoherent Duke, whom she had once respected.

Whom she had once followed as honorably as she could.

“Look at you.”

She turned her pistol on him. He continued to clutch the statue for no reason at all.

Was he begging Solceanos for forgiveness?

It was not he who needed such forgiveness. Forgiveness was for those who would live.

“Look at you squirming there. Do you know even know why you will die? You made me think that it was righteous to beat down hungry, desperate men. To gas crowds with women and children. To send to the deepest holes of the earth people whom you gave no choice but to steal and kill to live. How could I ever believe this? I’m the one here who must have been insane. I must have been insane to follow your orders.”

She walked up to him, grabbed him by the hair and smashed his face into the statue.

There was no catharsis in it. She could torture him all day and feel nothing from it.

“It’s not fair. It’s not fair that you can afford to lose your wits like this and I can’t.”

Surgically, without emotion, she put a single round through the back of his skull.

Duke Pascheladis’ head crashed against the statue plaque, smearing it with blood.

Sophia stared at the revolting sight of the corpse, unable to tear herself away.

In her mind, this moment had gone very differently.

Filled with passionate eloquence Sophia would have confronted the Duke about her transformation. She would explain the clarity she gained from disobeying her orders, from imprisonment, from suffering torture and being made an example of. She would describe to him the power she had found in her comrades, in their rebellion and the leftist militancy that turned so many to her side. He would have argued back that she was betraying her duty, betraying the honor of her position as a soldier, as an inquisitor, as a ducal guard. He would say that if she believed so strongly in the rantings of Mordecai, then she had to die as well!

Sophia would say to him, that she was prepared to meet him in hell right away.

None of this happened in reality. None of it could ever happen.

How long had the Duke been driven into madness? Was this entire battle so pointless?

Sophia was robbed of her revenge and she was robbed of a chance to convince herself of her own atonement.

Pascheladis had to die. But to Sophia, he had to die struggling, cursing her and clinging to his life.

She wanted to be able to condemn him. To watch his eyes water as he begged her for mercy.

Sophia looked down at the weapon with which she had ended the Pascheladis dukedom.

Even if she had not told him as such, she was prepared to meet him in hell.

“I’ve hurt too many people. Innocent people without hope. I’m no better than those two.”

She lifted the pistol to her own head.

She felt her hands shake, her blood run cold. She started to apply pressure to the trigger.

In the middle of that empty sanctum, she would die.

“I’m as guilty as these bastards. I hope– I hope she’ll forgive me–”

“No! Sophia, please, oh my god, please stop!”

Tears streaming down her eyes, Sophia turned around, the barrel of the pistol warm against her skin. She saw a woman her age in a matching pilot suit come running into the sanctum. Without her helmet, she was easy to identify. Irene had such a dignified face, the face of a truly noble soul, expressive, strikingly beautiful, with bright orange eyes and smooth, orderly brown hair, cut to the neck and curling inward.

Seeing Irene weep at the sight of Sophia’s decision was touching to her.

They were unlikely partners, unlikely allies. So much had to happen for them to meet.

She wished so strongly that Irene had not been there. That she would have just found a corpse.

“This is why you wanted to be alone? Sophia, you don’t have to do this!” Irene pleaded.

“I can’t bear to keep lying to myself. My hands are full of innocent blood.” Sophia said.

Irene’s face twisted with fear and pain. “You were a kid! You didn’t know anything!”

“I was old enough! I believed in what I was doing. I caused so much suffering.”

Sophia smiled bitterly. To think they were having an argument like this one last time.

“You reformed! You went to prison for standing against the government! You changed!”

“Changing does not absolve me of what I did. It only made me realize how horrible it was.”

“Quit running away then!” Irene shouted. “Live so you can take responsibility for yourself!”

Irene stomped her foot. Her cries grew more desperate through a flood of helpless tears.

“We chose you, Sophia! Out of everyone, we still chose to follow you! We believe in you!”

“I had military skills, respectability within the officer corps, and access. I was a good tool to radicalize the ducal navy in this time of crisis.” Sophia said. “Irene I can’t in good conscience volunteer to lead the people of Buren. I was a collaborator in their suffering and I will never be able to live that down.”

Her companion was starting to falter, to fall to helplessness. Irene hugged herself, shaking.

Through quivering lips, she began to mutter words that hit Sophia as hard as any bullet.

“Sophia, if I you told that– if I told you that all this time, I had feelings for–”

Sophia felt her heart sink and shouted back. “Please don’t say it! Irene, please! Not here!”

Those would have been the most painful last words she could have possibly heard.

“Please put that gun down! If you want to atone, then do so in life! Atone by my side!”

Irene stepped forward suddenly, holding out her hand, her eyes fixed on Sophia’s own.

Sophia was startled, but she was restrained enough not to pull the trigger out of fear. She thought for a second to threaten to shoot, but she was her own hostage. Her voice caught in her throat, and she could not move as Irene slowly approached her. Their eyes were fixed on one another.

“Give me the gun. Please, Sophia. I will help you; I will do anything for you.”

Irene got so close Sophia could smell the plastic scent of her suit, and the sweat in her hair.

Her hands reached up to Sophia’s own and touched her.

At first Sophia resisted. She did not allow the barrel to be brought down from her head.

Their gazes were locked together with such intensity. Sophia could not shut her eyes.

Irene persisted, tugging gently on Sophia’s hand.

Slowly, the barrel of the gun lifted off from Sophia’s skin.

Her companion turned the gun toward the ground and finally took it from her hand.

Sophia felt all the blood drain from her face. An overwhelming sense of shame overcame her. Like ice water dumped over her head. She wanted to fall to the floor, but Irene wrapped her arms around her.

Shorter by several centimeters, her face came rest against Sophia’s chest.

Sophia could not return her embrace. She felt so unworthy, and laid so low. Everything was supposed to end in this sanctum. There was not supposed to be another day for her; for the Sophia Tzanavaras who had gone from guarding this palace, to being the revolutionary seizing it.

“I never understood how much you were suffering.” Irene said. “I’m so sorry.”

“Irene, I– I don’t deserve this.” Sophia said weakly. She could not protest it much more.

Held in the arms of her faithful companion, and bearing the hopes of so many people, who saw her as a hero who was saving Buren from the evil aristocrats, Sophia could not conceive of how she would move forward from this moment. She felt as if her legs could never move again.

Despite everything, Irene was there supporting her. Sophia could not explain it.

Somehow, her legs would move again. There would be another day in her life.

Shaken by the knowledge that it could have all ended in that sanctum.

And bearing the uncertainty of a life she did not plan to lead.

In that sense, Sophia was just like Buren itself.

Having her past life torn to pieces in front of her eyes. Rediscovering herself as her ideas of justice were completely transformed. Throwing herself into battle after battle to defer the problem of mending her many wounds in a time of peace. Treading blindly to an uncertain future that was full of enemies and difficult questions about herself. What her role would be, how people viewed her, how she could protect their revolution. As much as she hated and feared the thought of living with the pain she caused and the pain she felt, Sophia Tzanavaras was Buren in flesh, and like Buren, her history would not end so simply.


“She could not do it after all. Well, I’m glad. It would’ve been a huge downer.”

Sophia and Irene wept into each other’s chests while a certain busybody peered from afar. Sitting above the Solceanos monument, her hands behind her head, giving her sore body a breather after a long day. She was glad that she did not get out of bed this morning to witness a suicide. That would have wrecked her day.

From a pouch in the ballistic vest worn over her double-layered tactical bodysuit, the spy produced a portable radio and tuned it to a special nationalist frequency. She put the receiver up to her red lips and spoke gently, so that her physical voice would not be overhead in the sanctum below.

“Commander Tzanavaras, it’s me. I apologize for going dark. I infiltrated the palace.”

She played with a lock of graying brown hair as Sophia, far below and unaware of her current position, took notice of the radio call. As soon as she spoke, she sent that tender moment between Commander and Adjutant into a sudden anxiety. Sophia scrambled to take the call by tapping her earpiece, and looked to Irene for support, who simply nodded to her in sympathy and stood by her side to support her. How touching.

“This is Tzanavaras.” Sophia said. She had done a magnificent job at code switching out from a vulnerable, broken-hearted girl’s weeping voice to the imperious, commanding voice they all knew and followed. “Daksha Kansal. Your support has been invaluable. Were you successful? Is everything clear on your end?”

The spy rolled her eyes a little. She should have never trusted this kid enough to have her name.

Even if it was a cheap and easy way to get her trust.

“It’s all clear. I prevented them from destroying any data or locking down the systems, so feel free to send your engineers to the control center. The security forces routed easily due to rumors that the Duke had gone mad and hid in the sanctum to die. Only the zealots stood and fought. Judging by the ruckus I heard, I think you can safely call this your win. On a related note: don’t call me Daksha Kansal anymore, alright Sophia?”

Below, Sophia started pacing out of the sanctum, with Irene in tow. Her movements seemed mechanical, as if a bit lost on how she should be putting one foot in front of the other. She was clearly still shaken. “What should I call you? You are a proletarian hero and founder of the Union. We honor your name quite highly.”

“That’s precisely why you should all forget about that name in the future. We don’t want Buren to live in the shadow of the Union’s deeds — you won’t inspire confidence just by relying on my name. Call me Ganges instead. But anyway, we’ll talk in person soon, Tzanavaras. I’ve got good news from down South.”

“Very well, Ganges. I look forward to our meeting, then.”

Atop the Solceanos monument, Ganges shut the radio antennae and laid back, sighing.

For a moment, she waited for Sophia and Irene to leave the sanctum.

Then she lifted her hand up to the roof.

There was a red glow in her eyes that she could feel as a gentle heat, as she pulled open a trapdoor on the roof from afar. Ganges stood up on the statue, and withdrew her hookshot. She would make her escape soon.

Her body ached in various places. Twenty years had passed since the Union fought off the Empire.

To think rather than lounging in house arrest like Ahwalia, she was still running around like this.

The things I do for my treasured students. She thought. I hope those two appreciate it.

It wasn’t like she hated her position entirely, however.

In fact, she felt privileged, whenever she closed her eyes and felt the wave spreading across the Oceans.

“Being called Ganges again sure makes me feel something.”

Once again, she was part of that revolutionary wave that would change everything.


Hours after the assault on Lithopolis, Bureni stations across the Duchy received word from the nationalists which then spread to the common people. Crowds formed in the parks and squares of several stations, with some crowds celebrating the fall of the ducal government and confronting dissenters against the nationalist cause. Station authorities were threatened to swear their loyalty to the Nationalists and to avoid retaliatory actions. Police forces initially organized to suppress pro-nationalist sentiments, but the total rout of the BDF and the approach of the new People’s Defense Corps fleets forced the surrender of station security forces.

Across the duchy, industrial workers overthrew their bosses, backed by nationalists, and took over the mining and refining of agarthicite and other products. Private transport companies in the state were blockaded by the nationalists and their ships confiscated and nationalized. There would be no more exporting of Bureni wealth to the rest of the Empire. Within days, the state had closed its borders, and one by one, its stations came under the control of the National Front, either peacefully or surrounded by nationalist ships.

Once the National Front could credibly claim to control all organs of state, there was a broadcast across all station monitors from Lithopolis. Inside a Sanctum that once housed an altar to Solceanos, now there was a simple podium where one woman addressed the nation. She dressed in an ornate dark-purple ceremonial military uniform that harkened back to the uniforms of the previous Kingdom of Buren, before annexation by the Empire. There was no mistaking her for a simple functionary or spokeswoman. She was tall, with strong shoulders and long, lean limbs, and a bountiful head of golden hair atop which rested a military beret. Her eyes were as golden as her hair; her pearl-olive skin was done up professionally, as were her lightly red lips.

“My beloved people of Buren! Our country is free!”

This was the beginning of her declaration. Everyone watching felt their heart soar at those words.

“For too long, we Burenis suffered under the tyranny of the ducal state, which turned countryman against countryman, destroyed our identity and history, and made us slaves to the Imbrian Empire! Duke Pascheladis and the ducal court have been broken by the hand of the National Front of Buren. We fought for so long to get to this day, and the fighting is not yet over. But today, my people, the wave of revolution which began in the Union twenty years ago has reached us here in Buren. Konstantin von Fueller, tyrant of the Imbrian ocean, is dead, and his Empire has no power over us anymore. We Burenis are now free to forge our own destinies.”

On every screen in Buren, that woman’s passionate words inspired crowds to roar and cheer.

With the weight of history bearing down on her shoulders, she declared her challenge against fate.

“My name is Sophia Tzanavaras! With your mandate, I have taken up the mantle of Supreme Marshal of the National Front of Buren, to tirelessly protect our revolution! To protect the rights and dignity of all workers, the peace and security of the common folk, and the autonomy of the People’s Democratic Republic of Buren!”

At this point, the camera zoomed out just enough for the people watching to see two Union Streloks appear, unarmed, and kneel at Sophia’s sides. For Imperial citizens, the Strelok’s silhouette was often propaganda for an evil enemy. To see them kneeling around Sophia displayed some degree of martial prowess to the viewers.

“In the coming months, there will be many challenges to our cause, but together, we will overcome anything! We will build upon our history of brave warriors, and the teachings of modern revolution, and triumph!”

When Sophia’s face finally disappeared from the screens, the people watching were already thinking of themselves as the People’s Democratic Republic of Buren, whether they were optimistic of its future or not.


Previous ~ Next

The Day [4.5]

This chapter contains explicit consensual sexual content and one flagrant violation of personal boundaries.

At one curious point in Elena’s prosaic evening, Gertrude herself became a hot topic.

“Oh, yes, I am that Grand Inquisitor Lichtenberg. Yes, I’m part of internal security.”

She began answering questions fielded at her, and everyone suddenly became interested.

Elena thought it was no surprise Gertrude could become a center of attention herself. After all, she was tall, handsome, and had a variety of talents. And also she was a Grand Inquisitor at the age of 29, no mean feat. Particularly because she led a purge of her predecessor to get there.

Once the little group that had formed around Elena caught wind of it, they began to move the conversation politely and gently as they could toward Gertrude, with a heavy focus on acquiring her aid for their troubles.

A young man whose private shipyard had issues with labor unionists brought up the subject to Gertrude, who told him it would be easier to compromise with them than beat them; a woman expressed discomfort at the fact that homeless people congregated in a station block she bought for renovation, and Gertrude suggested charitable works; such conversations continued from there. After a point, more people, particularly young women, asked for Gertrude to recount her own tales, and such companionship felt much more sincere to Elena.

Gertrude would not become their personal attendants.

She was already bound to a promise.

And neither money nor brutality had ever formed part of her interests to begin with.

It seemed that the opportunists learned this at last.

And so the discussion lightened up.

Still it very much centered around Gertrude.

Everyone became impressed with her.

Maybe they had become bored of Elena.

That was fair; she found them all boring too.

While her companion was getting wrapped up in socializing, Elena felt she finally had a chance to take a breather and recuperate. She really was something of an introvert at heart, and she happily took the opportunity to slip out of the dull crowd as they mobbed Gertrude. She could have a drink in a corner near the band, collect herself. Maybe even ask Bethany about, well, everything.

As she broke from the group, however, someone called out to and approached her.

“Milady! Milady!” A woman stepped forward excitedly while calling for Elena. When the Princess stopped to acknowledge her, she clapped her hands together and beamed at her. “Milady, I wish you a wonderful birthday and many more to come. May I take your side for a moment?”

Her solicitor was a tall, blond woman. Her hair was styled so it fell partially over one eye, lending her an air of mystery. She wore a beautiful dress that was simple in its design but ornate in decoration, black with glittering blue gradients and a plunging neckline. Blue gloves and stockings with similar blue touches covered her arms from the hand to just above the elbow, and from thigh to foot. So while the dress showed off skin in some provocative places, she was actually quite well covered. What she chose to uncover left an impression: she had a scar on her chest, between her breasts, that was quite obvious. It looked to Elena like a surgical scar, but she did not want to inspect it for too long. It might have put her in a compromising position.

Elena was instantly curious about this woman and allowed her to take her arm for a brief walk, and she led her to a nearby table, where they had a drink of wine. While Elena only took a sip, her new companion downed the entire glass and set it back down on the table with a boisterous smile.

There was clearly something about her.

Not nobility; likely petite bourgeois, a capitalist.

“Only the best for the young lady.” She picked up a second glass, and this one she toasted with before taking a single sip. “Princess Elena von Fueller. Your location was a closely guarded secret, until today. We live in interesting times! I must say, I wish your brother had come too.”

Elene felt something off about the conversation. They were mostly out of earshot of anyone, and the woman’s tone bordered on impolite. Why did she walk her over here to drink in an unsightly fashion and whine like this?

“That’s a popular sentiment. But do you not think it rude to ask for my arm, only to talk about my brother? If you wish only to speak of him, contact his publicist instead of myself.”

She launched a barb, allowing her tone of voice to show some of her deeply held irritation. If her assumption proved correct, then this woman was not an aristocrat, and as such, insulting or humiliating her would have no consequence for Elena. While having money could make one materially equivalent to a noble, the petite bourgeois were not socially equivalent to nobles or even to the highest and most respected echelons of the military.

Someone like Gertrude while less wealthy, commanded more respectability; someone like Elena could treat any capitalist, however rich they were, like a filthy commoner, if she desired to do so. They were owed no more respect.

Her response did not move the woman one centimeter.

Her confidence was unshaken.

“I apologize. I was simply making an observation, but I may have been too blunt. I’m a keen observer of the court’s political atmosphere. To wit, I had been trying to find you, milady, for some time now. But it proved impossible, until you were allowed to be discovered for this party.”

Her dark red lips curled into a sly smile.

Elena was taken aback. “Why were you searching for me? If you think I am more pliable toward your business interests than my brother or my departed father, you are mistaken. I’m not looking to invest.”

What was her deal?

Elena was wracking her brain trying to find out. She could read so little from the woman’s self-aggrandizing expression. She was not like all the dressed-up bimbos and scheming clods whom her brother had invited to cause Elena grief. Behind those black eyes there was something going on. Did she just want money? Elena almost felt a sense of danger from her.

“Nothing so vulgar as that. It concerns your mother.”

Elena was briefly stunned speechless.

For her mother to come up twice in one evening–

The woman smiled and cut her off. “I apologize for not introducing myself sooner, I’m Marina McKennedy. I would like to request a private audience tomorrow. I wish to bequeath to you something that was once your mother’s, and was kept with me, and rightly belongs to you.”

“You knew my mother?” Elena said, almost a whisper, a gasp.

Her heart pounded.

“She was the star of the court. More people knew and loved her than will speak of it today. She had many trusted friends, I was but one among them.”

Marine reached out a hand suddenly and patted Elena on the head, ruffling her hair slightly. The Princess looked around as if in a dream.

Nobody was paying attention to her.

Trapped in her own isolated corner of the world with this Marina McKennedy. Since nobody could see it, she smacked away Marina’s hand with clear aggression. “Don’t touch me! What are you playing at?”

“I apologize, it was a reflex. It’s because you look just like her.” Marina said. “It’s almost uncanny. So, is it permissible for me to visit tomorrow?”

Elena felt reduced to a child, and her emotions spiraled.

“Absolutely not. Go fuck yourself.”

“My, my; manners, princess. I’ll come at teatime, then I will be gone.”

“You’ll be gone right now before I have the Grand Inquisitor remove you.”

Elena balled up her fists at her side, seeing red.

Marina looked if anything, more amused.

She bowed her head mockingly, turned around, and casually left the ballroom. Elena almost wondered if anybody else saw her, or if she was some kind of mocking ghost or spirit. She seemed almost to glide in under anyone’s notice. Elena knew somehow that she was not invited. She must have snuck into Vogelheim, and the eve of the party was just her opportunity to get close to Elena. But for what reason? Her mother? Really?

That being said, when that aggressive mood finally passed her, Elena realized that Marina could have easily hurt her if that was her intention. Maybe she really was an eccentric friend of her mother. Elena had heard that her mother was a free spirit, deep into the arts and culture and with many eccentric acquaintances, such as philosophers and poets and fashionistas. None of the people who had told her they knew her mother had been truly normal. Elena should have been used to this by now.

She knew so little about her.

If Marina was inviting herself, perhaps it was best to let her.

With that dark cloud over her head, Elena returned to the party.

Gertrude had really gotten sucked into the crowd.

She was laughing and being chummy and looked like she was finally opening up more. Perhaps the drink in her hand helped as well. Elena was not in the mood to feel positive about her special friend making chatter with people who were not her, on her own birthday. Elena let herself be as gloomy and unfriendly as she felt while she pushed her way back into the circle of aristocrats that had gathered around Gertrude.

Mid-conversation, the Inquisitor noticed Elena’s appearance and tried to make an escape.

“Ah, I’m getting peckish, I’m going to meet with a charcuterie plate, ciao!

She surreptitiously took Elena’s hand and silently urged her to follow.

Elena gave no resistance.

Around them, the crowd’s attentions were diverted.

Far in the background, Bethany had gone through a few songs already. Giving her vocal cords a break, she let the band take the lead, and left the stage with an announcement, wishing the partygoers well and to await her return. Her parting and the vigorous clapping that followed from the animated crowd of nobles gave Elena and Gertrude a chance to slip away.

Gertrude grabbed a pair of drinks from a plate and urged Elena to follow.

“You’ve had enough of this party haven’t you? What’s a good place to hide?”

“My room?”

Elena looked like a deer in the headlights for a second.

“Your room? Really? Well, I suppose I wouldn’t look for you there.”

With this agreement, they ditched the party entirely.

The Villa was completely deserted.

Everyone was at the party. There were more maids in the floor below, whipping up food when needed, but on the second floor, Elena’s so-called party was the nexus of all activity. Gertrude and Elena walked the empty halls together, making it all the way to Elena’s room without bumping into anyone or eliciting any suspicion. They locked the door behind themselves and were confident they had not been seen nor followed.

“Ah, it’s spacious.” Gertrude said. She looked over the arrangements briefly.

Gertrude had never been invited to Elena’s room before. When they were kids, they played together in approved settings, such as the school, or a park; as adults, when Gertrude visited, they had tea and went on walks. Since relocating to Vogelheim, Elena had never had a guest in her room. Gertrude’s eyes fell upon Elena’s stuffed toys and her humble bookshelf.

“I would have thought you would have way more stuff though.”

“I don’t really ask for much. My brother is always late delivering anything I order anyway.”

“He really has you go through him for anything huh?”

“He’s so overprotective, it’s honestly unnerving.”

Aside from her stuffies, Elena prized possessions were mainly her books as well as various pieces of learning software such as a universal encyclopedia, which were installed on the Villa’s main computer and could be accessed through thin clients on the network. She also had a Nexus 32-bit console and a few romantic adventure games, but she had thoroughly exhausted all of them and the console lay unplugged in a corner of the room. There was also her wardrobe, of course. That was not valuable at all.

“It’s cozy. I’m jealous; you can wake up to a breeze and look out at the sun.”

Gertrude walked over to the window and looked outside.

“It’s kind of annoying though. You can’t sleep in because of the sunlight.” Elena said.

“That beats staring at grey walls for months.” Gertrude winked at her.

“Everything out there is just as artificial as the walls in your ship.” Elena said.

Gertrude cracked a smile. She sat on Elena’s bed, and Elena sat beside her.

They drank, and sat close, mostly quiet, contemplative.

The Princess glanced sidelong at the woman she fashioned as her knight and felt a thrilling sensation in her chest, a prickling electricity under her skin as she drank more. She knew that their positions in life were not supposed to cross, and furthermore, that she even endangered Gertrude by coveting her as she did. But the Princess could not help it. And so her hand snuck over Gertrude’s on the bed and squeezed tightly against it.

Gertrude, making no change in expression, squeezed back.

This touch set off a tiny transfer of body heat that sparked Elena’s heart.

At first she chided herself for what she wanted to say.

They were in a locked room, alone.

Though they were both women it was amply clear that they both viewed the same sex in a certain light. Their relationship to each other was special; Elena could call Gertrude her knight, her bosom friend, her dearest, all manner of beautiful words only for her. What she wanted then, what she coveted, was a lover. Someone who would fulfill her physically.

Elena had been raised to have certainly lady-like virtues.

She was also canny, however.

Ladies fucked around; probably even Bethany did.

Would a virtuous lady sit around making euphemisms all night until her promised pounced on her out of sheer starvation of touch? Elena could not imagine the aristocrats led such cold lives. No, there was certainly a language for asking for what she desired. And to some degree she knew it. That being said, it was difficult to overcome the programming of a puritanical society.

She wanted to have her first time with Gertrude. That was her romantic, storybook wish.

It was selfish to think about this when the entire Empire could fall apart in its present crisis.

That was what she told herself, she was selfish, she was a pervert, and yet–

And yet, it was the insanity of the moment which led her to seek comfort in Gertrude.

All of this then led Elena to make her case in the most roundabout way.

“You know, Gertrude, if you were a boy, this would be a grand opportunity for you.”

She said this, and tugged gently on Gertrude’s sleeve, wearing an embarrassed smile.

Gertrude fully turned her head to make eye contact. She blinked twice, quietly.

“Elena?”

“I just mean– we’ve had quite a hot date already, haven’t we? Now we’re here alone.”

Elena made this insinuation almost in a joking fashion, as if trying to back off, but the bevy of emotions swirling in her head belied the truth behind it. Gertrude, sitting with her on the bedside, made little response. Both of them had their cheeks turning red. The warmth transferring between their hands became hotter. For a few moments, they exchanged glances in an awkward silence.

She thought it only proper, that if something were to happen, Gertrude should initiate.

It was also an insurance policy for her own heart, perhaps.

She didn’t want to ask something scandalous directly, and then be turned down.

And yet, she also wanted that feeling of being taken.

Of losing control; being controlled by someone else, not being sole master of her body.

Losing responsibility, for a moment, for being The Imperial Princess.

All of these thoughts brewed like a perverted tea in her brain, but nothing happened.

Maybe Gertrude just was not as much as a deviant as Elena herself.

In the next instant, this fantasy had a brush with death. Elena nearly discarded her hopes.

Then Gertrude had a little laugh burst out of her. A laugh slick with a surging devilishness.

She turned fully around and extended an arm past Elena on the bed and pinned her down.

Now Gertrude hovered over her.

“Like this, you think? Sudden, rough, unexpected; how a real dirtbag would treat a lady.”

One of her knees been set between Elena’s legs so that she could not close them.

Elena’s thighs pressed against it.

Gertrude came suddenly very close.

Her lips brushed against Elena’s. They didn’t kiss, not fully, but the touch set off electricity all across Elena’s face, down her neck. Instead of taking her lips, Gertrude stalked closer, seeking something more. Elena was surprised. Gertrude really was pressing her weight right on top of her.

She supported herself looming over Elena with both hands at first.

One over the left shoulder, one under the right arm.

On her face was a sly expression, narrowed eyes, subtly spread lips.

Elena did not try to move out of her grasp. Her eyes drew wide.

Such a bold response set Elena’s heart afire. Her chest pounded. Her breathing quickened.

Sweat, formed glistening beads on her chest.

Gertrude’s hand moved from her shoulder, down her flank, over her hip.

Her fingers snuck beneath Elena’s skirt and grabbed a deep handful of her buttocks.

Elena tittered. Rather than panic, she found herself smiling at this act.

She was excited. She raised her arms to Gertrude’s hips as if inviting more.

Gertrude smiled back.

She then nearly fell over Elena with laughter.

Suddenly breaking the illusion she had created.

Elena suddenly felt a little ridiculous herself. She laughed with Gertrude, still holding her.

“We’re hopeless.” Said the Princess.

Gertrude shook her head.

“Elena, I cannot say I am personally experienced in this, but I’m also not so innocent, you know? Soldiers spend months out at sea, and we do indulge these kinds of fantasies. If you think I haven’t– However, it is just not my style to take action amid so many ambiguities and unspoken words as this.”

“What– What should I do then?” Elena said.

That dark expression appeared on Gertrude’s face again.

She leaned back down on Elena.

“Become mine and mine alone. Beg me for something no one else can give.”

Gertrude’s voice, low, slick, dangerous, her words tickled Elena’s ears.

Dark, seductive whispers that pulled Elena tantalizingly close to oblivion.

“Tell me what you want, Princess. I’ll grant your every wish. But you have to beg for it. I don’t want to do anything if we’re just fooling ourselves.”

She felt Gertrude’s knee up against her again.

A tiny, stammering sound escaped from her lips.

Her heart caught in her chest.

Was she simply so weak?

Or was Gertrude just naturally, monstrously strong?

Feeling the force in her lover’s words, Elena succumbed to the compulsion.

She whispered in Gertrude’s ears. She whispered what she wanted.

Gertrude grinned with great self-satisfaction.

“As you wish, milady.”

Gertrude raised her head away from Elena’s whispering lips and then suddenly descended on them. She took the princess into a deep, sudden kiss, pushing her down on the bed.

For a princess who could have nearly anything in the world which could be bought, this was the one thing she was barred from. Choosing who gets to taste her lips, to touch her body. Those choices were taken from her mother and they’d be taken from her; and yet, in the insane situation in which the world found itself, Elena finally felt free from her responsibilities.

Gertrude’s lips parted from her own, a thread of spittle briefly connecting their tongues.

Was this the thread of their conjoined fate? It was brief; but there would be more.

“I’m going to move you and undress you, ok?”

Gertrude sat up and pulled Elena up with her, sitting her on the bed.

From behind her, Gertrude carefully undid Elena’s dress and pulled it off her shoulders.

Elena felt a chill down her spine, and gooseflesh, as her skin was exposed to a cool breeze.

“Careful.” Elena said. “It’s my mother’s heirloom. I’ll do it.”

Gertrude nodded. For a moment, she instead undressed herself. She stripped off her suit, vest, button-down, until she was topless, exposing her strong shoulders and lean belly. Her toned body glistened with sweat.

Elena spotted a patch adhered to her left rib. It was her healing injury.

“Sorry you have to see this.” Gertrude winked.

“All of your scars are beautiful to me, Gertrude.”

She did not have many. But there were a few. And Elena did love them.

Every part of Gertrude was a part she loved.

Smiling, Gertrude shifted her legs off the bed for a moment and pulled down her pants, before crossing them and pulling Elena closer to her again. She could feel Gertrude’s hot, irregular breathing behind her neck. Then she felt her lips, on her shoulder, on her neck. A nip at her ear.

Her elfin ears were longer than an Imbrian’s, and particularly sensitive.

She quivered a little and let out a tiny gasp.

“Take your time undressing. Are you feeling good?”

Elena nodded her head quietly.

She gently shed the various accoutrements on her body, unveiling more pearl-pink skin.

As she did, Gertrude’s newly freed hands glided up her flanks, over her ribs.

Elena felt her back press up against Gertrude’s breasts.

She was warm and protected again. She did not realize how much bigger Gertrude was until she was wrapped in her embrace, and her lover could almost rest her head on Elena’s in the position that they were in. Her hands wandered, pressing against Elena’s skin, rising up her chest.

Just as she had grabbed hold of Elena’s rear, she squeezed both of her breasts.

“Oh!”

“That’s a cute reaction.”

That low, sultry voice kissed her ears again.

Gertrude cupped her fingers over her breasts, teasing her more.

Brief, and probing, as if it was a novel sensation.

Just a tease; soon the hands moved again.

Into the bundle of discarded dress that hung around Elena’s hips and legs.

Elena felt it instantly. A wild heat that coursed through her midsection.

As soon as Gertrude’s fingers teased down her inner thigh.

As soon as they applied pressure–

“Oh– my god–”

“You’re shaking so much. I’ve barely done anything. What a dirty Princess.”

Gertrude delivered another sultry whisper into Elena’s pointed ear.

Between Elena’s legs, Gertrude’s finger slipped down the center, gently parting soft skin.

One of her lover’s strong arms went around Elena’s stomach, holding her steady.

Gertrude nipped Elena’s neck, kissing, sucking, while her hand worked faster.

Her fingers ceased exploring; one slipped inside the princess with swift ease.

“Gertrude–”

And another flicked and pressed against her clit.

“Oh my god Gertrude–”

Elena nearly let out all the air in her lungs. She bent against Gertrude’s body.

Her hips threw back. She felt like she had hit Gertrude’s chest–

But the sensation, the heat, the feeling of pressure building and washing over her–

Gertrude smiled, her face up against Elena’s. “I hope this is how you fantasized it too.”

Her fingers worked faster.

Elena’s entire body quaked with those words, that touch.

A wave crashed over her, shuddering from her core and out to her limbs.

She let out a cry, a cry of relief, a release of pressure, a cry of joy.

She sank against Gertrude, soaked in sweat and more, tittering.

Tears started to form in Elena’s eyes. Tears of joy. “Ger– Trude I– I l-l-love–“

Gertrude kissed her cheek and embraced her with both arms.

“I know. I love you too. And I’ll always protect you, Elena. Always.”


In the middle of an encore of Lili Marlene, Bethany Skoll chided herself internally.

Everyone was going crazy over her singing; and she looked killer in a red dress.

When she wanted to, she could still sex herself up and steal anyone’s gaze.

Something about that did please her. It felt like what she got up to with Leda.

But caught up in the passion of the moment, her own gaze had lost its sharpness too.

She had lost track of the princess; and none of the drunk men or absentminded bimbos in the crowd seemed to care that the birthday girl was gone either. Bethany surmised that since the lady Lichtenberg was gone too, they must be together. She understood that they were both women who valued the same sex differently than most; so she had some inkling of what they might do.

It was a special night, they were a little tipsy, and they were alone.

Such things tugged at her matronly concerns, but it was a new world.

By the dawn, it could well be the least of their problems.

At least Elena was not in any danger with Lady Lichtenberg.

Or at least not in danger of losing anything but her virginity.

Bethany chided herself for another fact as well.

Prince Erich had never come to the party. He had invited all of these people, who truly came only for his presence and cared nothing for Elena, and then he himself had failed to show. Such a disservice could only mean that there was a plot afoot. He never intended to come because he chose not to be in Vogelheim for his precious sister’s birthday. His sister, whom he himself had hidden in Vogelheim. For her own security; to keep her away from the nobles’ resurgent devilry.

She dared not dream that Prince Erich was scheming against the princess.

However, he may well have been scheming against these people.

So Bethany was torn between the song, the dance, the ardor; and the cold, unknown reality.

For a while she simply sang and entrusted the Princess to her own judgment.

After all, she was a woman now. She had to be trusted to make her own decisions.

As the night wore on, and the assembled began to lose whatever ambition had brought them to this unknown place, as they began to lose sight of what they were hoping to find or what sort of opportunity they might score, Bethany decided to bring the night to a close for them. She and the maids doubled as a security team, so they were crafty in their own ways. Erich had dropped this mess on their shoulders quite suddenly, and they had everything under control nonetheless.

“Thank you so much for the applause. Ladies and gentlemen, I regret to inform that your entertainment for tonight has concluded. There will be transportation awaiting you, and you may stay at the Schellen Hotel for the night or return to your personal watercraft at this time. Our dear Elena von Fueller wishes she could have entertained you personally for longer, but business has unfortunately led her away from us. Nonetheless, you will all be remembered in the Princess’ heart for your company tonight. Once again, thank you for your attendance, and have a pleasant night.”

Significant amounts of the partygoers had drank enough to have some trouble interpreting the announcement, but the cordial and pretty maids who appeared from the crowd’s flanks gently guided everybody away from the drinks and the dance hall, slowly peeling the partygoers out the door, down the stairs, and out to the garden, where a small fleet of private motorcars were waiting. Bethany did not see that particular detail, though she knew that they planned it like that.

Instead, she stood up on the stage, and viewed the empty dance floor.

She remembered when she first sang for her; when she looked down at her on an empty dance floor just like this. Back then, it was an entirely different world. Neither of them knew what attention would fall on them, what kind of life they would end up having. Bethany had a dire need of confidence in herself. Leda gave her all the confidence she lacked, helped her feel alive.

That empty, improvised dance floor, and the tables in disarray.

It was so much like that night.

“No use remembering any of this, Bethany. She’s gone.”

Everything she did now was for Elena.

Bethany walked off the stage.

She picked up a bottle of champagne that was perhaps three quarters empty, grabbing it by the neck with the same grip that would have strangled a man, and emptying the contents into her lips. A tiny amount of slipped from the side of her mouth, and for an instant, she must have really looked like a bloodsucking beast, more than a singer in red.

There were a lot of sides to her.

“I still got it. For how much longer? As long as it takes, I suppose.”

Most of the maids would still be engaged a while, so Bethany thought she would give herself a few moments to wallow and feel sorry for herself. Perhaps she always felt this way after singing. Singing helped her vent.

It flared up her emotions, and she had many emotions to burn.

Perhaps that was what made truly great singers.

Having to hide the pain that they felt.

“Great performance; I really managed to get into the mood myself.”

A chilling voice, its volume tightly controlled.

As Bethany made her way out the doors of the lodge and locked them behind her, she heard and saw a woman approach. A blond, who instantly peeled off her own blond hair to reveal shorter black hair, tied into a little bun, half up and half down, with bangs falling over one of her eyes.

Boldly dressed, and moving boldly, the woman invaded Bethany’s space.

One hand struck the locked door behind Bethany, close to the maid’s ear.

Her free hand took Bethany’s wrist.

And her knee went under and between Bethany’s legs.

She had a completely stone-like, inexpressive face.

“Miss me?” She said.

In the next instant as Bethany’s lips parted to respond, Marina McKennedy’s head tipped to one side and pressed the rest of her claim on Bethany’s orbit. Her tongue tasted like smoke and liquor in Bethany’s mouth, and for some reason that kiss and the way her lips locked against the maid’s caused eerily familiar sensations. Still, her natural reaction was to struggle against the kiss. She pushed on the woman’s stomach and chest with her free hand, while her lips continued to freely taste her as if nothing were happening. Feeling for an instant the trained muscle beneath the woman’s dress, and the strength of her grip, Bethany finally managed to shove her back.

“You cad! I’ll have you locked up!” Bethany shouted, breathing heavy.

“It’s Marina now. Marina McKennedy. Well– I mean. You know.”

Bethany was suddenly confused. “Who are you?”

“Look down.”

Marina pulled down on her already plunging neckline to expose more of her breasts. Bethany stared at her exposed chest and saw a familiar scar.

“Wait. You’re–”

“Yes, but don’t talk about it.”

“Wait is it really? Blake? But– you didn’t used to be a–”

“That name was fake too but don’t call me that. Can you drop it? Look.”

She produced a gold card.

A plaque, bearing an owl perched atop a round shield.

The symbol of the Republic of Alayze’s G.I.A, General Intelligence Agency.

Marina smiled, seeing Bethany’s shocked reaction.

“As you can see, a hell of a lot has happened to me. I don’t want to talk about it. I’m not gonna say I can’t, because nobody’s here to stop me. But I won’t. Do you miss me? I have time that I wanted to spend with you. It’ll be– different this time, but I know you like it both ways.”

“Solceanos protect me. It really is you.”

Bethany slapped Marina across the face.

She struck her so hard, she wanted to draw blood.

Marina grit her teeth, still smiling, though clearly put off-balance by the strike. “I kinda deserve that.” She said, reaching for lips to see if they had broken. They had not. “But at the same time Betty when we met, you approached me, you know? And I was younger than you by a good bit. So honestly, how can you blame me for still being smitten with such a cool, mature lady?”

“Cut the crap. We were using each other. And a wealthy dilettante still ranks lower on the scale of relationship power dynamics than a secret agent, even when you factor in a few years.”

“Did you miss me?” Marina said again.

At this point, Bethany could not tell if Marina McKennedy meant to ask whether Marina had missed her as one of the party guests, a cruel joke on her successful infiltration; or whether Marina meant to ask her if she missed her company. Bethany chided herself again. Her gaze really was losing her sharpness. She had missed Elena and this dangerous character.

And yet, Bethany had mixed emotions about Marina McKennedy.

Now that she knew who it was, she almost wanted to go back to the kiss.

Even if transactional, she remembered it was almost as good with her as it was with Leda.

“Why are you here? It can’t have just been to rekindle an old flame. To get here you would have had to have known our secret. So you got access to that information. What do you want?”

“You’re too cold to yourself. You’re worth the trip.”

“Stop it. You want me to trust you after all these years? For once in your life, be honest.”

“I’m way more honest with you than any other GIA agent would be.”

Marina sighed briefly.

“Elena von Fueller is here. I want to explain to her what happened to her mother and try to convince her to leave. She can defect to the Republic. She won’t have a future here, Bethany.”

“Of course. It was always about the Princess.”

Bethany was conflicted; briefly, before Marina suddenly put a hand on her shoulder.

It was a gentle hand, grasping at her with desire.

“Bethany, I’d also love to spend the night. I– I hate to admit it, but I need to be comforted too, every once in a while. I really have been through a lot. The next few months are gonna be hell for me. Is it okay if, just for tonight, I can have a little island of peace in these stormy seas?”

“You are just using me.” Bethany said. “Maybe I have more self-respect than that now.”

“But this time I’m the one who is desperate. Can you help me? I’ve been through hell.”

Marina’s eyes teared up. Bethany almost voiced her surprise aloud at the sight.

“So much for the mighty G.I.A., all-seeing, all-knowing of the seas.”

Bethany wiped Marina’s tears; Marina recoiled at the touch as if she feared being hit again.

The head maid was surprised. The G.I.A. agent was much cooler and more collected the last time they met. Judging by the fact that she was, well, so completely changed, and her current demeanor, either she had become a far better actor or something truly awful really had happened to her. Something that made her change herself entirely, maybe to run away; maybe to be able to accept it. Bethany could not know how much of this identity was fake or how much was genuine.

As much of a schemer as Bethany was, she could not imagine what a spy went through.

That was always one thing which made Leda distant too.

Leda, herself an arch-schemer who wanted to play every side to her advantage.

Bethany had failed to soothe Leda at all; she had failed to be an equal partner to her.

Some would say, nobody could have stood up to the colossus that Leda was.

And yet, Bethany was still stung by it.

Looking at Marina’s tearful face, she remembered a scene.

Just like when she stared down at the empty dance floor.

It really was a night filled with déjà vu.

When Leda had made that face to Bethany, it was the last time Bethany ever saw her.

She did not want to fail a lonely, hurt woman again; even if she was a two-faced bitch.

“We can discuss business later. But I’m going to need you to shape up. I’m not here for you to fall apart on. I’m still going to be needing you to top.”

Those were some words she wished she had told Leda, too.

Bethany winked at Marina. For a moment, Marina was struck speechless.

She wiped her own face and smiled coolly as if nothing had happened.

“You’re right. This isn’t me. I have to be the cool spy you fell in love with.”

“Oh, shut up. Were you faking?”

“I wasn’t! You have to believe me. You weren’t this paranoid with Leda.”

Marina raised her hands in defense.

Bethany sighed.

“Follow me. And keep your hands to yourself until we get in bed.”

“I’ll be perfectly gentlemanly.”

“Shut up, too.”

That night, it was not just Elena who found a pair of arms to stave off the bad dreams.


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